James Gross talks to Toby Lloyd, Chair of the Commission into Prosperity and Community Placemaking on the publication of their findings in the Create Streets Foundation’s report ‘No Place Left Behind’. Toby was previously Director of Policy at Shelter and special advisor to No.10 under Theresa May. He speaks to the AoU Journal about the links between the commission’s work and the recently published Levelling Up White Paper.
The Commission’s report makes some big and bold recommendations including moving the circa £130bn balance of local authority debt onto the national balance sheet (thereby freeing up local authorities to reinvest and take advantage of national government preferential borrowing rates), promoting a £2bn Community Wealth Fund to be rolled out to communities in small packets, and defining successful places through the metric of ‘trams, tricycles and trees’.
Journal: Toby, can you provide us with some insight as to the reasons behind the report’s focusing on community activity as the mainstay for government policy to deliver meaningful change at the local level?
TL: With a subject matter as broad as regeneration and levelling up, you could cover absolutely anything. There is literally not a policy area that you can’t legitimately say shouldn’t be part of the agenda. So, from the start our focus was on community activity, community level change and place making. There are some things that were not a primary focus but that we felt we just couldn’t omit; local authority financing being an obvious one. However, we quite liked the idea of a big, bold statement or a rebalancing of the financial position of local authorities reflecting a failing within the wider sector to address this.
Journal: Shifting back to the placemaking aspect, can you elaborate on the role of Create Streets in identifying both the need and the timing opportunity to produce this report to coincide (broadly speaking) with the release of the White Paper on Levelling up?
TL: There were various pledges in the levelling up White paper around high streets and consulting further on stronger powers for communities, community spaces and relationships. To characterise it slightly unfairly, the Create Streets agenda has been most effective at making the case where there is sufficient land value to organise development to better capitalise on that value for the public good. It’s harder to see how that can work in places where there is very low land value and so the genesis of the Commission was to ask ‘how can this process of extracting public benefit also be applied to existing places’, not just new in builds and particularly in places where land values are very low and where there is not ready access to capital.
So, the report considered mechanisms of regenerating existing places where people already live and where there must be a much stronger emphasis on community engagement and where things can be achieved with much less money. All of these things point to a the need to discover more contextual approaches, leveraging what already exists and harnessing the benefits of local places. Regeneration is not only harder than new build, it also has distinct advantages of communities, resources and identities, existing infrastructure which requires a slightly different approach.
Journal: To what extent then does this messaging run within government and the target audience of the report?
TL: By the last count we had identified emerging government policy impacting on about 15 of the measures we called for, and while this is not all down to our influence, it does show that we have been pushing in a direction for which there has at least been some appetite.
We started this work nearly 2 years ago, when levelling up was just a vague buzz phrase, which it wasn’t clear government was going to stick with as a meaningful objective. We weren’t particularly thinking ‘how do we harness the levelling up agenda’. But by the time we came to publication, levelling was very much front and centre.
Journal: yes, and there’s even a ministry named after it.
TL: So, it shows government was open to this approach and has made levelling up its flagship agenda and I have civil servants calling me up most days asking for ideas, tips and places to visit.
Journal: Can we dig down a little into the role of Big Local and Local Trust both in terms of their being fellow commissioners on the report and the evidence base of community projects which has tracked Big Local community funding since 2019. Can we particularly focus on measuring the effectiveness of small-scale community interventions in 150 places which were the recipient of community grants of £1m?
TL: The Big Local approach is brilliant because it’s so bottom up. It’s really small amounts of money in regeneration terms, but its big amounts in terms of making headlines in a local neighbourhood. Local Trust talk about the £1m figure as the ‘golden number’. It’s just the right number to make a huge difference to a community but not big enough for a local authority, national agency or army of consultancies to sink their teeth into. It’s just enough to get the community’s attention, almost homeopathic levels of investment, it’s just right.
It’s also an ‘addition’ to the toolkit of national and local public regeneration services. It’s a way of leveraging resources that wouldn’t otherwise be mobilised – the energy and commitment of local people themselves.
Journal: Is the intention that the proposed £2bn Community Wealth Fund promoted in the report is used to further expand on the Big Local funding and continue championing local initiatives?
TL: In the last 10 years there have been 2 really interesting developments in this space. Making community development a reality is tricky. What is the community? How do you mediate between differences in the community? None of this is clear cut, but since the demise of the New Labour regeneration programmes, we had the turn towards localism which it’s fair to say did not result in a transformation. But we did have the Local Trust with its very different model.
This works by taking an endowment and creating institutions through injecting very small amounts of money in different communities. Of course, it’s a mixed bag. Not all of them have worked, but we should be absolutely celebrating that some haven’t worked because that’s how you learn and create genuine innovation in the mechanism for delivering regeneration.
The other [and core sponsor of the report] is Power to Change. They’re the sort of national enabling agency we need, that has the depth and breadth to nurture local ecosystems.
Journal: But does any of this conflict with what the government has recently announced about Homes England also taking on a similar role around regeneration?
TL: Regeneration requires ecosystems at all levels, sometimes collaborating, but also competing with each other. Homes England should expand its role beyond new housebuilding and it should get involved in regeneration, engaging in more places more locally.
Journal: Moving on, the notion of ‘spending to save’ on grassroots initiatives by advocating investment locally to save nationally is understood, but how is the economic efficiency of this strategy to be captured when such heavy and inflated inefficiencies in transport delivery, healthcare and education exist, without just adding another layer of funding drain?
TL: It seems mad that we spend so much on acute on healthcare and so little on prevention and yet these are not easy things to turn around. Part of the process is democratic. If we were to spend a lot more of lecturing people how they ought to live their lives rather than on hospitals, people would resent that.
Within government there are huge institutional barriers to investment-savings thinking. The obvious one is that the people who make the saving are not the same as the people who pay for the cost!
DLUC could obviously save huge amounts of the healthcare budget by making towns and places healthier for people, but these impact different departmental budgets with different timescales.
Journal: Could not following a more devolved model for (local) government and municipalities [for example, as followed in 2017 AoU Congress location of Aarhus, Denmark] present an opportunity to streamline funding and achieve greater savings and impact at the community level? The report does not seem to have given much space to devolution?
TL: Silo funding is a large part of the problem, but those types of problems will still replicate themselves at the municipal level. We dedicated a lot of time to considering the role of devolution, but felt it was such a significant issue, it wasn’t where we wanted to devote our focus. Our position is that the Commission is absolutely supportive of devolution in general, but without wanting to get into what exactly the correct position is.
Journal: Drilling down further then, beneath the municipal level, and into neighbourhoods, what evidence has the Commission discovered that supports the view that locally led-regeneration can successfully tackle cross boundary issues where the Duty to Cooperate has failed?
TL: The work of the Commission has associated neighbourhood regeneration with ‘hyper-localism’ rather than work across broader levels. There is an interesting analysis needed to consider whether the aims of the Commission in calling for more hyper-localism will encourage communities to collaborate, as this is clearly something that be required.
Journal: Quite. It’s worth noting that of the 225 areas in need of levelling up, identified by Local Trust and repeated in the report, a number of these feature adjacent wards or super output areas which (it could be argued) are equally in need of investment. Is there not a danger that investment becomes too diluted, or an ‘us and them’ culture pervades where better enabled communities attract funding above those where need is greater?
TL: There is a broad philosophical question as to what ‘left-behind places’ even mean. The Commission didn’t need to define it too precisely, as the idea of funding is not supposed to be restricted to specific places. It’s still a meaningful concept though, as it describes something quite real that people can actually feel.
Policy definitions simply don’t work in areas as complex as well-being and regeneration. This is an area where the politicians are often righter than the policy ‘experts’ because they respond to what they hear on the doorstep and what people feel. Everyone feels that some places are a bit tired and left behind.
Coming back to the Big Local model, the funding requirements are pretty simple. Basically looking for communities which are most left behind but enough wherewithal to come together and get organised, and use this a catalyst to leverage funding from elsewhere. Its about increasing capacity at the local level to make things happen.
Journal: Have you found there to be specific combinations of local technical expertise or circumstances which have proven more effective in improving the impact of community led regeneration?
TL: There are a wide range of difference models. Lawrence Weston, just outside Bristol was one of our case studies. A classically left behind place of being residential suburb quite isolated, quit cut off with most of its critical infrastructure having been closed down over the years. A Local Trust grant has catalysed what has been quite a successful community development movement, that has gone on to get new bus routes put in connecting local people to employment, investment in housing development, it’s even got its own green energy generation company. It’s been catalytic with a lot of high-quality place making as well.
Another example would be central Hastings where initiatives by a few social entrepreneurs have built an ecosystem of different organisations creating an entirely different model of town centre regeneration for the benefit of the local community.
Journal: Moving on to town centres, can you shed further detail on the types and tenures of the community elements that the report considers to be the ‘missing element’ from Britain’s failing high streets? As retail decline has become endemic nationally, such areas are likely to number far more than the 225 left behind communities cited in the report, so how will this ‘missing mix’ achieve the necessary step change to turn town centres and high streets around, if not already identified by market forces?
TL: It’s not about the precise uses or what’s missing, that’s basically whatever works for a place. Its more about the institutional ecosystem, the physical nature of the place, the place-making and the ownership. There are real barriers here and property ownership is a fundamental problem. The Hastings example which has become the centre piece of regeneration in the town, is an example of a heritage building that stood empty on the High Street for 30 years, during which time it went through 10 different owners and 13 planning permissions. The purpose of these was to actively blight the area and extract value from the place and the community, and there are other examples where people actively make money [for themselves] by not doing things.
A lot of the time in regeneration, we find ourselves only wanting to talk about the upsides. There are downsides where some people can do very, very well out the existing system and we need to accept that perhaps it’s time that those people should do less well. Mostly this means targeting absentee property owners for whom all of the costs are externalised onto the community. This story is never told, there is simply no data on it, there is not even basic transparency over who owns what in the UK. You’re not going to seriously regenerate run-down town centres if you can’t know who owns stuff!
Journal: Do you see greater roles given to Local Authorities providing them with powers to step in in such cases?
TL: Absolutely. In this country we’ve always prioritised the rights of absentee owners to make money by sitting on blight than see the rights of communities to see their neighbourhoods regenerated. Right now there are so called ‘vulture funds’ circling over our high streets. There a huge number of assets up for sale or going bankrupt in our town centres which, as British property ownership is so well protected, represent secure investments which could quite possibly benefit from public funding over the long run.
We could end up with a huge number of offshore trusts and hedge funds buying up UK property just to sit on it to make some people rich.
Ideally, the credible threat of compulsory purchase should be combined with a genuine Community Right to Buy that facilitates community ownership and management of assets that are neglected. The recent Levelling Up White Paper included some helpful noises in the direction and [as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] the Economic Crime Bill has been rushed through Parliament to finally see some transparency around property ownership [introducing a register of overseas entities and beneficial owners owning property in the UK]. Things can change quite quickly when the government decides it wants to!
Journal: The report also talked a lot about housing and left behind places, with a lot of residential neighbourhoods needing regeneration. There is a focus on achieving zero carbon in existing homes, how this is to be achieved and paid for. Can you expand on the Commission’s findings as to changes that can occur at a neighbourhood level across what will impact on much of the UK’s existing housing stock?
TL: Initiatives to date in this regard have been quite piecemeal. Grants to homeowners here, grants to social housing landlords there. It makes much more sense to try and deliver this at a neighbourhood level rather than house by house and include it within the regeneration agenda.
There is a colossal employment and training opportunity to champion this in areas where employment can be thin on the ground. We’re going to need a massive army of skilled trades to meet our national zero carbon target.
In the light of the [Levelling Up] White Paper we now have more of a sense as to what the government is interested in. There are 15 recommendations in the report that are backed by the government one way or another, with the most fertile synergy around the High Street.
The longer terms issues around decarbonisation and residential neighbourhoods are only going to get bigger and bigger.
Journal: Finally, if you were going to champion one of the areas already picked up by government arising from your report, do you have a strong preference as to which once this might be?
TL: Personally, my preference is for the advocating of street-level improvements and reduction in car dependency. So many of our left behind communities are just ripped apart by inappropriate roads and some places are making truly great leaps forward in this regard. However, an awful lot are not, and the polarisation of this is a real worry.
Worse still is how this is unfairly being played politically out as the ‘latte-swilling hipsters’ in low car neighbourhoods, pitted against ordinary decent working folk and their cars, a caricature that is that is both unfair and untrue.
Hopefully this is something can be addressed through the launch of the new Active Travel England and their gear change strategy for active travel has been really positive.
At the national level, the key thing is making sure it travels down to the local areas. The big city mayors are doing great things in this regard, but the danger is that this just increases the gap between our thriving cities and left-behind towns. We’ve got to get this strategy to work at a finer grain level in smaller places.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE
- Put urban areas on a street diet and create safer streets
- Plant trees and clean the air
- Connect communities
- Liberate movement
RECREATING TOWN AND NEIGHBOURHOOD CENTRES
- Revive town centre commerce and activity beyond the pandemic by supporting independent stores and rescuing lost assets
- Support the community high street by creating Community Improvement Districts and public sector co-location
- Ensure planning, development and property ownership supports regeneration rather than preventing it
THE VALUE OF COMMUNITY REGENERATION
- Support community asset acquisition
- Put community asset ownership of a sustainable footing
- Empower communities to tackle dereliction and neglectful ownership
RENEWING HOMES AND NEIGHBOURHOODS
- Kickstart decarbonisation of the nation’s homes by retrofitting the social housing stock
- Launch a national programme of neighbourhood retrofitting in parallel with social housing decarbonisation
- Create Neighbourhood Improvement Districts to secure area-wide housing improvements across all tenures
- Fund the building and transfer of homes into long-term, non-profit ownership in failing housing markets
INSTITUTIONS AND INVESTMENT
- Put local government finances on a sustainable footing
- Empower local authorities to be effective community partners
- Rebuild the ecosystem with funding for what works