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Levelling Up: “Community confidence building within disadvantaged places is the foundation for success”


Successful Levelling Up of economically disadvantaged places does not start with capital investment, it starts with community confidence building.

Before places can take full advantage of the economic and social opportunities enabled by investment, they need to have confidence that change is possible, creativity to leverage opportunities arising from their local, place-based assets, capacity to develop those opportunities and the capability to deliver them.

Confidence building within disadvantaged places is the foundation for Levelling Up success; it is what, at a fundamental level, enables those sparks of potential to be ignited. Starting at the other end of the process – with a focus on big infrastructure projects, or centrally delivered, one-size-fits-all development programmes – risks entrenching existing inequalities.

If we really want to level up left-behind places, there is an urgent need to understand and address the compound impacts of decades of disadvantage and neglect.

Confidence building 
If people do not believe that their community can succeed, then it won’t.

Levelling Up could start by addressing the mindset consequences of left-behind-places; the crisis of low self-esteem and poor perception of place that inhabits economically disadvantaged communities.

Levelling Up should leverage the passion and determination of those who care deeply about the place, those with a vested interest, and enable them directly, rather than empowering centralised institutions or national organisations where there is a risk of delivering top-down activity to and at places.

What might help?
• Participatory place branding and locally-led visioning to transform internal perceptions of place potential.
• Building on what the community believes is strong about their place, rather than trying to correct what is externally perceived to be wrong.
• Embedding economic development practitioners within communities and giving them the resources to deliver dynamically and responsively to emerging opportunity.
• Testing new approaches and pushing boundaries; encouraging stimulating, provocative projects that cultivate local ambition from the bottom up and change perceptions about what is possible.

Creating solutions 
Economic transformation is fundamentally a creative activity, so how can we cultivate the development of good – and great – ideas?

The impact of Levelling Up interventions could be maximised by enabling the voices of disrupters, innovators, challengers and creative practitioners to be heard; empowering the changemakers to propose radical solutions that challenge assumed conventions.

What might help?
• Micro commissions, challenge funds and research projects to stimulate new community-led ideas generation with a focus on enabling innovation (rather than leveraging investment).
• Designing-out institutional thinking and delivering to vested interests at programme design stage. 
• Increasing opportunities to meaningfully involve young people and encourage a digital-first mindset.  
• Embracing the potential for glorious failure, and valuing the learning that emerges from it.

Capacity building 
The hollowed out nature of left-behind places requires long-term investment in local capacity building. Not only do our most disadvantaged communities suffer from a lack of capacity, but they currently must compete with communities that are over endowed with capacity. So, before we can level up, there is a need to level the playing field.

Community development practitioners on short-term contracts within fragile organisations that must chase the next competitive funding opportunity to sustain core activity erodes the efficacy of already constrained capacity. Left-behind places require stability of personnel resource over a long period of time to develop expertise, build skills and attract the talent needed to deliver change.  

What might help?
• Stabilising community development and local enabler resource, with five-year minimum funding cycles for key personnel.
• Implementing networked approaches to community-led economic development, encouraging capacity building through connection and collaboration, particularly across local supply chains.  

Capability development 
Economic changes, waves of Covid, climate crisis response and the digitisation of society all require diverse and dynamic capabilities within community-based enterprises and organisations. This is more than skills development; it is equipping communities with the ability to confidently adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and emerging opportunity.

What might help? 
• Expanding provision of on-demand micro-learning to support enterprise skills development. 
• Embedding enablers and opportunity spotters within community and economic development eco-systems. 
• Raising the prominence of entrepreneurship and creative innovation within education and community development programmes.  

Funding community-led solutions? 
Levelling Up could start by rethinking approaches to funding that address many of the hidden barriers to access that are encountered by projects and organisations in economically disadvantaged communities.

For example, innovation in Levelling Up funding could encourage ambitious thinking at an early stage in the formation of community organisations and enterprises by being inclusive and accessible to all types of organisations and enterprises, at every stage of organisational development – from pre-start to incorporated organisation.  

It could be enabling in approach by allowing flexibility in intervention rates; incentivising ambition in project scope and impact-led, solutions-focused project development by removing match funding barriers that can constrain potential.

It could be stable and predictable in its delivery, enabling organisations to build towards scheduled windows of known opportunity.

It could build in learning, refinement and knowledge sharing within project design; facilitating peer-to-peer engagement between areas and sectors to amplify the impact and cascade experience.

It could be progressive in its design, supporting capacity building and skills development over an extended period, with success in early stage delivery supporting the scaling of community ambition.  

With a post-Brexit blank slate in funding design and intervention approach there is a big opportunity for the government to begin to address some of the structural issues that cause areas to become left behind. Whether it will seize the opportunity to deliver the transformative development of disadvantaged places remains to be seen.

Lorna Young is a Marketing and Rural Economic Development Consultant, and a Director/member of the IED. This article was first published in Levelling Up: pre-White Paper perspectives from economic development professionals.