Chris Cowcher, Plunkett’s Head of Policy & Communications, shares his reflections on the Levelling Up White Paper and what it means for community-owned businesses

We are nearly a fortnight on from the publication of the Government’s much talked about Levelling Up White Paper, a document packed full of detail and spread over 300+ pages. As I’m sure others in the sector have been doing, I have been reading the endless blogs, scanning ‘threads’ of commentary on social media and also attended a number of briefings and discussion events too. As such; given that this document will now underpin Government activity for the foreseeable future, I thought it about time to put down some reflections from a Plunkett point of view.

A document full of ‘hooks’ and opportunities

Firstly, I need to start by saying that this is not a White Paper that has been launched with a consultation opportunity, to directly respond to the content in its entirety. It is a framework, around which multiple opportunities for engagement and representation exist. This White Paper also does not come with any additional funding per se, however referenced within its contents are a review and considerations for the future delivery of the community ownership fund and other large scale funding opportunities for our sector, such as the Shared Prosperity Fund. These funds will support sector growth, which is to be welcomed and builds on funding awarded by Government in 2021 but ongoing influencing work is required to ensure the money reaches those communities requiring the most support.

Plunkett will continue to advocate on behalf of those already open and trading businesses; asking for there to be more support be made available for them, including access to funding, to support diversification, innovation and to grow operations. We do not expect that Government should be the sole source of funding for our sector however, so Plunkett will use the “Levelling Up” message to also underpin our influencing activities with other national funders, social investment organisations and those operating in the wider banking sector.

Whilst the predominant focus of the Levelling Up White Paper will be viewed through an urban lens, it is heartening to see reference to rural proofing in the executive summary. All too often Plunkett Foundation, and our membership are faced with the assumption that living and working in the countryside comes without any challenges – and therefore the question of ‘why do we need to level up in rural areas?’ The reality is however that the countryside must remain available and accessible to all and to achieve this, investment and additional support is needed. It is not about simply placing rural areas on a par with identified ‘left behind’ communities, it about ensuring that any funding is directly targeted at addressing specific needs and used to create impactful opportunities in the countryside. We articulated a number of the opportunities for community businesses that we believe should be supported as part of levelling up in our Rural Vision document, published in the autumn of 2020.

Finally, when reviewing the document for the first time it should be noted that the Levelling Up White paper sets out a long term vision; it’s success will be judged by what change has occurred by 2030. This timeframe realistically means that the objectives included in this White Paper will run across multiple general elections and spending reviews (budgets). Without even considering any potential external factors that may also affect society in the next 8 years, the environment in which this White Paper sits will alter considerably over time. The monitoring and report processes, with a commitment to annual updated included in the paper, will be critical to ensure that this agenda remains current and relevant. Furthermore the White Paper delivery will need to do more to recognise and address the unique needs, challenges and opportunities which are relevant in the devolved nations.

Levelling Up Missions

Included in the White Paper are 12 “Missions” (found first in the executive summary and then expanded on from page 120 onwards) that will now be central to the delivery of the Levelling Up agenda. A number of these missions are directly relevant to work of Plunkett and our membership, not least a commitment to improve living standards which aims to see “pay, employment and productivity rising in every area of the UK”. There also are missions related to transport and digital infrastructure that will require bespoke solutions in rural areas, and Plunkett will continue to champion the role of community businesses acting as ‘hubs’ around which new solutions can be developed. The skills and training missions will be a useful focus points for those community businesses already offering education activities, such as many of the woodland social enterprise organisations that we work with. There must also be a commitment to support a more diverse range of jobs in the countryside to ensure that there are opportunities for the next generation, community-owned businesses of all types have a role to play here and Plunkett will do all we can to support this work.

The central mission around “Pride in Place” appears to have been the underlining message banded about when talking about Levelling Up, in particular since party conference season last autumn and also in the time whilst we have waited for this white paper to be published. This sentiment (pride) is of course something that many communities, with a community business will identify with i.e. People feel proud when they have come together for a common cause and delivered huge social benefit for their community. We look forward to supporting this mission, as we grow the number of community businesses across the UK. Furthermore it will not just be “left behind” communities that we will target through our work, but also those residents at risk of being left behind themselves or made to no longer feel able to remain living, or working in the countryside because of a lack of opportunities. Plunkett champions community businesses as inclusive organisations and we know through their innovating approach to addressing local needs, that they can be hugely impactful in relation to Levelling Up.

A new strategy for community spaces

There are some specific points of note included the document, which are relevant to our membership. Not least the launch of a Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships (see page 214 onwards), which includes a commitment that “the UK Government will consider how the existing Community Asset Transfer and Asset of Community Value Schemes can be enhanced, and consult on options to go further to support community ownership”. This is a consultation that Plunkett Foundation will be responding to in due course and will be seeking the views of our members to support this. It also aligns with our Keep it in the Community project that we have recently launched, with the support of Power to Change and Locality. Of course the consultation appears to be very England-focussed, however we will use the opportunity (reviewing assets of community value) to support our work in Wales and Northern Ireland in terms of calling for the establishment of community rights to protect local assets in these nations. It will also be a useful point of reference in terms of any future review of the Community Empowerment Act in Scotland.

Furthermore the Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships also references to Community Power “making it easier for local people and community groups to come together to set local priorities and shape their neighbourhoods”. This is a welcome recognition of how empowering grassroots action can have truly meaningful and lasting impact – something all community businesses will be able to relate to. As part of this commitment there is to be a neighbourhood review of governance, including the role of parish councils. This could be useful in relation to this guide we produced with NALC, with the aim of creating more proactive relationships between local councils and community-ownership projects. The White Paper appears to promote a desire to see greater levels of community empowerment and accountability, and whilst we need to see how this is realised in practice the fact it is included in the paper are useful ‘hooks’ for our sector to use in our work.

One final point of note from me is the point that “the Dormant Assets Scheme will also be expanded to unlock up to a further £880m” which potentially could bring new investment to the community business sector. There will be consultations about the potential for a Community Wealth Fund, and options on “youth, financial inclusion and social investment” and Plunkett will be keen to represent the rural community business sector in our response.

To reiterate the point, Levelling Up is very much an agenda with a long-term view. At this point we welcome its publication, and look forward to working with the Plunkett membership to continue identify the opportunities and appropriate opportunities to influence the delivery of this work over the next 8 years.

If you want to discuss anything related to the White Paper, or would like to share your views please do feel free to drop me a line – chris.cowcher@plunkett.co.uk.