We will now take oral evidence from Professor Graeme Atherton, head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London; Rich Bell and Sacha Bedding from the We’re Right Here campaign; and Dr Parth Patel from the Institute for Public Policy Research. We have until 3.20 pm. Will the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record?
I am Rich Bell. I am the campaign manager for We’re Right Here, a campaign for a community power Act. Our campaign is supported by a number of national policy organisations, including Power to Change, New Local and Locality, but it is driven by community leaders who are pursuing a range of social missions in their community, all of whom believe that their work would be easier if public institutions were designed for them to do things with, rather than designed to do things for them. Sacha is one of our six leaders.
Hi, I’m Sacha Bedding. I work for a small, estate-based charity in the Dyke House area of Hartlepool. The charity is called the Wharton Trust, but we are better known locally as the Annexe. We are a community anchor organisation; I think that would be the best description of us. I am here on behalf of my colleagues in the We’re Right Here campaign.
My name is Graeme Atherton. I am based in the University of West London, and I head the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up, which is a research centre at the university focused on developing policy-relevant research on geographical and broader forms of inequality. The centre was launched just over a year ago.
Q I will, if that is all right, Sir Mark. Good afternoon, panellists. I am really grateful for your time. I will direct my first question to Rich and Sacha. Your campaign is about community power. What do you think about what is in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill?
Our basic sense is that there are positive individual measures in the Bill to strengthen the agency of local authorities and communities, but we have some worries about the way that local leadership is conceived of in the Bill. Andy Haldane, who led the Government’s levelling-up taskforce, said that if we are to make a reality of levelling up, local governance has to be a team sport involving local government, local finance, community organisations and local people, yet local leadership seems to be conceived of, both in the levelling-up White Paper and in the Bill, as being restricted to elected metro Mayors, potentially county mayors and governors. We do not think that that fulfils the need for meaningful control at community level. Giving people control of the services, spaces and spending decisions that shape our places will be absolutely pivotal to fulfilling levelling-up missions related to pride in place—as will local leadership, obviously.
Teesside is well known for what our metro Mayor, Ben Houchen, is doing. If you were to ask people in my community what that means to them—the purchase of an airport; the decarbonisation of industry; carbon capture and storage—they would say that they are good things, and the macroeconomic circumstances arising out of them could be a positive, but it feels as though they are a million miles away from having an impact on their life. When we talk about local leadership, I would like us to move beyond the sub-regional. From a Westminster perspective, that is more local, but from a community perspective, to really feel for those people in left-behind neighbourhoods, of which ours is one, it needs to be most local leadership. Giving people agency and control over more decisions, more often, would be beneficial.
The Bill is a start, and a step in the right direction. As Rich says, there are elements that you can get behind, but probably more needs to be done, so that people can feel that they benefit from some of the levelling-up opportunities in the paper.
Q This might be a good moment to go to you, Parth. In your research, you have looked at democracy and decision making. What does that tell you about who people are confident in, where they want to make decisions, and what involvement people in general want in decision making?
At their simplest, questions of constitutional reform and devolution are questions about whose voice is heard, which we should not detach from the question of who has a voice in the first place. There is minimal engagement in Bill with local politicians at certain scales, or with community and civil society organisations and citizens. There are some allusions to public consultation, but without much detail about what it involves. That is a problem, because when you are implementing a tier of local governance without having come bottom up, there is a risk that the link between the citizenry and this new tier of state will be weak. Then you get low political engagement, of all sorts, and local opposition to certain new tiers of government, and it feels like a wasted opportunity.
At the same time, clauses 43 and 45 grant the Secretary of State new powers to impose a combined county authority, change the constitution in a CCA or impose a mayoralty unilaterally—with a public consultation, although that is not quite defined. That purely top-down approach to constitutional reform risks being at best a little bit of a waste and at worst democratically not very legitimate.
Q Thank you. Graeme, we spoke a little in this morning’s sitting about the missions. As you know, whether the missions should be set out in the Bill, or whether the Bill should say instead that there should be some missions, is something of a politically contested space. We also talked a little about how we will understand progress. From your research in your unit at the university, how best can we as decision makers and legislators monitor levelling up and understand the impact of the various levelling-up missions and programmes?
One of the first things is that the missions differ significantly in precisely how they can be measured. For some missions, you see targets that one could see progress against in a quantitative way; for others, that is less so. Consistency across the missions would seem a good starting point. Then, if we are indeed to look for progress, there need to be quantitative and possibly other measures alongside each mission.
Inevitably, one of the challenges with levelling up is that the White Paper is so broad and encompasses so many different policy areas. We found over 120 different policy targets or policies mentioned in the White Paper, alongside £250 billion-worth of spend. Refining that down to a number of missions will be difficult. First, you need to make the missions consistent, and there needs to be a rationale for why certain things are included as missions and others are not. For instance, we consistently have things on skills, but not on other aspects of education—we have things for younger groups, at primary level, but not for those at a level between the two.
The important point is: what is and is not the mission? In defining it and looking for progress, we need to be as precise as we can be for each mission. We should possibly go beyond the time scale in the White Paper, and look at what happened prior to that, because although the medium term is good, you need to consider the short, medium and long-term progress you are looking to make on the missions.
Q Thank you to all the panellists; it is brilliant to see you here. My first question is to Dr Patel. Rural communities face inequality in accessing health services, given the geographical distances that people need to travel to receive healthcare. Thinking about cancer treatment, A&E and GP access, what evidence can you call on to indicate whether those large geographical distances have an impact on health outcomes?
It is an excellent question. I cannot call on a precise study that will give me an exact scientific answer to what you are asking. The thing about health outcomes is that they are a point of convergence for a whole array of economic, social, cultural and political factors, including access to public services of all kinds, not just health services. That is why health outcomes are quite a good thing to look at. Within the 12 missions, it is sort of the mission of the missions. The other 11 all basically feed into whether or not we achieve the health mission, so it is a good thing to look at. There are no two ways about it: public services are a key determinant of health distributions and health patterns, and they make a massive difference to cancer outcomes, for example. At the same time, they are not the be-all and end-all. The local economy matters, and things like pride in place and social relations also matter.
Zooming out a little bit, do I think this Bill and the proposed funding pots around it will achieve the health mission? The evidence tells me I should be sceptical. A really good example is if we look at east and west Germany in 1990, when there was a four-year life expectancy difference between east and west Germany. Two decades later, that had closed to three months. In those two decades, we saw radical constitutional reform, sweeping political change, €2 trillion of investment and a massive upgrade in public services and access to the services you described. In relation to that, what this Bill proposes is certainly more symbolic than substantial, and that is where my scepticism originates.
Q On using this Bill to provide rights to access, or giving local communities the powers of definition and delivery, so that GP practices are protected in rural communities or cancer treatment is brought closer to where people live, what provisions could be put into the Bill to make sure those things are delivered?
That is another brilliant question. There is a huge cut-across here with what has been going on with NHS reforms over the past two or three decades. It is almost as though we have had some of the issues again—the problem with top-down structural reform and how, ultimately, it does not really make a difference. Structures are important, but people really care about outcomes.
I would encourage people to compare what has being going on with the integrated care system reforms, and to think about the priorities, legislative and non-legislative, between those new institutions; the ICS boards operate at the same sort of size as a mayoral combined authority. I for one have definitely encouraged the ICSs to have a much stronger conversation with combined authorities about how they can work together to ensure that services can be delivered to the hardest-to-reach populations. There are certainly places that are doing that quite well. Often, it comes back not just to governance, but to resourcing. By that, I do not just mean money; I mean personnel. The public sector is anaemic in a lot of places, and that is a huge barrier beyond a legislative one.
Q Thank you. I have a quick one for Rich and/or Sacha about planning. How much do you think the campaign to increase communities’ power over their destiny depends on the level of planning control and the kinds of powers communities have?
I think the destiny of communities is significantly shaped by their level of control over planning decisions. One thing we are at once encouraged by and slightly disappointed by in this Bill is the proposal regarding the neighbourhood share. This is the idea that 25% of the infrastructure levy could be controlled by either a parish council or a neighbourhood planning forum. That currently applies in the case of the community infrastructure levy, but not in the case of section 106. I think it is a very positive step on the Government’s part to extend that neighbourhood-level control over the investment of developer-generated public money—to devolve that directly to neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, parish councils are predominantly found in wealthy and rural areas. A report produced for the Department then known as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government by academics at the University of Reading concluded something very similar on neighbourhood planning forums just a few years ago.
We would suggest that members of the Committee should consider whether the Bill could be amended to expand the definition of a “qualifying body” on page 264. We would ask Members to introduce a clause amending the Localism Act 2011 that expands the range of organisations to whom that neighbourhood share could be passed. It should be possible for local authorities to designate community anchor organisations, such as the Wharton Trust in Hartlepool, as local trusted partners who could work with that local authority to spend that not insignificant amount of public money.
Q This question is mainly for Sacha and Rich. It is about high street rental auctions, which the Bill introduces. As well as being an opportunity to improve our high streets and regenerate the local economy, do you think they are an opportunity for voluntary groups, small businesses and social enterprises to get themselves a place on the high street? How would you like to see community involvement in that high street rental auction process work?
We were very encouraged by the detail of this proposal. We were very pleased to see that the Bill defines high street use in a way that recognises the use of high street premises as a communal meeting space. It is incredibly important that the legislation recognises that high streets are not just drivers of local economies; they are the sites of the bumping spaces and the meeting places that stitch together our social fabric. It is similarly positive that the Bill’s local benefit condition recognises the social and environmental benefits of high street premises as well as their economic benefits.
We encourage the Government to consider how they can shape accompanying regulations to ensure that local authorities feel that they have permission to work with social enterprises and local community organisations, and to shape their own criteria for high street auctions, so that those community organisations can gain access to high street sites. As I say, we were encouraged by the detail.
High streets are absolutely about pride. There is nothing worse than seeing boarded-up places. The opportunity for local ownership and activity will help. People are full of ideas on how to do that. I will not go on too long; we absolutely agree with what Rich said, and there will be any amount of ideas, not just focused around retail, on how people can help make their high streets thriving places again.
I noted your comments, Mr Bell, about the importance of team spirit in levelling up communities. Do you have any thoughts or comments about the fact that the Scottish Government will not be involved at the decision-making stage in the allocation of levelling-up funding? That suggests that there will be implications for duplication, the inefficient use of resources, and lack of strategic overviewQ .
My only comment would be to say that it seems incredibly important, when taking what is a pretty radical step in promoting sub-regional devolution across England, to do so in a joined-up way which involves dialogue with all the national Governments across the UK. That said, I would say that the problem in the Bill is not the lack of emphasis on sub-regional and national devolution; the problem is the lack of emphasis on devolution at the most local level, as Sacha said, and the complete absence of genuine community leadership.
Q The Institute of Economic Affairs has described the missions in the Bill as being of “dubious quality”. Do you have any concerns about whether there are sufficient or robust ways of objectively measuring the progress and impact of levelling up, given that many say that there appears to be a lack of accountability or even ownership for each of the missions? If you do have such concerns, how do you think that the Bill could, or should, be altered to address them?
I suspect that this is a question that Graeme and Parth will be able to answer slightly better. As a campaign, we certainly see a case for some sort of independent body that would be charged with assessing the suitability of the levelling-up missions and, crucially, the metrics against which they are measured.
Something we are calling for, as part of our proposal for a community power Act, is the creation of a community power commissioner to assess the Government’s performance in upholding the rights of communities. We would say that there is something unique about the Bill in its emphasis on local leadership and on issues of social infrastructure and social capital, and we would like to see particular attention paid to those elements of this agenda when it comes to shaping the metrics and assessing the suitability of the missions.
On the first part of that question, the mission quality, I think that some of the missions are excellent and some are not. Not every mission is equal. That is the top line. Despite the domains being about right as a package, some of the missions are quite narrow—education and skills, for example. Some of them are quite vague, the living standards one in particular, and some of them are probably just a bit too easy to achieve—even with a do-nothing approach, you would probably end up hitting that mission. Having said that, some of the missions are excellent, like the health one. We could dwell on that a little more.
The second half of your question was about accountability. I strongly welcome the reporting to Parliament. Particularly given recent trends in the use of secondary legislation and in the bypassing of Parliament in the Brexit negotiations and the covid legislation, it is nice to see the parliamentary scrutiny mechanism used. It is great that the Government will be doing that. Having said that, I do not think that that in itself is adequate, or at least it is on the low end of ambition, when accountability frameworks might have been useful.
In addition to the political accountability that Parliament will give by something being brought before Parliament each year, a further step would be independent scrutiny. There is the council here, but it is still at the behest of the Government and it will not have analytical power, capability or policy expertise, or the quantitative expertise, to be able to provide this really rigorous scrutiny that you would want around the missions, akin to what we have for climate progress—we have the Climate Change Committee, and the Office for Budget Responsibility or even the National Infrastructure Commission. If we had an institution like that, if the council—which has no statutory footing for levelling up—were turned into an independent institution with a statutory footing, with that coming some resource to hire the policy experts that you need, that would be excellent.
You would then have the political accountability mechanism, as well as the technocratic accountability mechanism. One might be better placed to do an annual progress report and the other to do an annual delivery plan, but those two mechanisms together would be the gold standard to ensure accountability and progress on the missions.
Yes. I agree, particularly on the issue of independence and scrutiny. Transparency is important as well, if we are going to construct what is most desirable, which is some form of independent scrutiny. If you look at the Bill, it is weak in that area, with regards to how the missions are scrutinised. That has to be done in a transparent way, whatever approach is taken. We have already seen in the distribution and levelling-up funds some issues regarding transparency and clarity in those areas. I would also say that we would have to consider how the ability is set in the Bill to change the missions. There is something of a contradiction to consider there in that the missions are meant to be long-term challenges.
In the White Paper, there is significant attention placed on the nature of missions—why we have missions and how they will make a significant difference to how we deliver on this agenda. However, in the long-term element, there is at the same time the ability set in the Bill to change the missions, and I think how that is done needs to be transparent. If we consider the time limits, from my understanding of the Bill, they can be changed quite frequently, possibly after only a small period of implementation, which would suggest that we could have a scenario where we move from mission to mission.
That kind of devalues the concept of the missions altogether. We have to consider what the missions are adding to the mix. Overall, they have a possible powerful role to play. The way the policy is constructed is to have lots of other different policies moving towards levelling up. Having a mission is a way of tying that together in some way, so I think that is quite welcome, but for them to work, they have to generally be constructed as different from a policy target—i.e. a mission. Therefore, it implies longevity, scrutiny, transparency as well as clear metrics around progress and, as I said before, consistency across the nature of what the missions are.
Q I just want to return to the issue you raised on neighbourhood planning. There is an interesting concept there about the neighbourhood share, particularly in areas where there is not a parish council or town council. What potential issues might you see in terms of any conflict between the interests of that group and what they are wanting to deliver for that community and the wider community? What governance arrangements might be needed to ensure that there is transparency around the needs of that community and how they develop?
We have a significant number of neighbourhood planning groups and neighbourhood plans around the country. However, there are areas—particularly more deprived areas—that have not developed those. The Bill provides for the neighbourhood priority statements to introduce a simpler way for communities to think about how they want to improve their place. Do you see any issues around that area in the Bill that need to be looked at again? Is this a real opportunity for such groups to formulate how the needs of their communities are delivered on the ground for those towns and areas?
The creation of neighbourhood priority statements, which allow people at the local level to very clearly set out their priorities, and having those accounted for in local plans, is definitely a positive step forward, and we really welcome that. The point we would make is that community anchor organisations work in a way so as to unlock the capacity that is already present in communities. We would suggest that drafting them into this work could actually be key to addressing the geographic disparity in current levels of neighbourhood planning, particularly as research by the Communities in Charge campaign has demonstrated that the sorts of organisations we are talking about—community anchor organisations that seek to address local challenges in holistic ways that are truly reaching the community—are actually more likely to be found in areas that we would describe as deprived.
Clearly, there are challenges around how you ensure those organisations are acting with legitimacy. We think that the Government’s pledge to bring forward community covenants in their White Paper is potentially a game changer in that respect. We see that as a means of working through the challenges of a public body investing a degree of authority in a community organisation that is not on a statutory status. We would suggest that as long as you are working through the intermediary organisation in the form of the local authority, and as long as the Government provide guidance and regulations to ensure that that local authority is ensuring the community organisation has the trust of the whole community before it invests that power, it is a neat and relatively easy quick fix to what might otherwise be a problem by which the Bill would wind up deepening inequalities in control and power rather than resolving them.
Q I have a follow-up question for Rich and Sacha on neighbourhood planning. Given the campaign’s interest in neighbourhood planning forums as a model for community covenants, as well as for neighbourhood planning in the suggested power of those covenants, can you expand on how you see the potential use and/or misuse of some of the measures in the Bill, especially national development management policies on the status and functioning of local planning and, in particular—because it is an important aspect—on participation and trust in that process at a local level?
I think we certainly agree with the comments that were made by many Members on Second Reading about the seeming primacy of the national management policy and the way in which the Bill seems to grant the Secretary of State the power effectively to overrule local communities. That does not seem to be in the spirit of the levelling-up agenda as we understand it.
Only to say that the consequence of that would be more disillusionment, and it needs rectifying. If people are really to have a sense of agency and ownership of their own place and feel that it has been levelled up, they need to feel that they have the power to stop that happening. That needs teasing out in a thoughtful way, so that those powers that we hope will pass down to communities are enshrined and do not depend on the largesse of other people in more significant positions of power.
I was just observing that one of the missions is on transport infrastructure, for example, which will move closer to the model in London by 2030Q . When Parth gave the example of the health and life expectancy case study in East and West Germany, the question struck me of whether the Government are being ambitious enough. We have an opportunity of a blank sheet of paper for a deprived area. Could we look at best practice in transport for example? Seoul and Tokyo are good examples that we could aim for.
Definitely, when it comes to transport linkages, localism is really important. If we are to take this blank sheet, ambitious approach, we need to ask what model works for particular communities and areas. The modes of transport that we are looking to implement may differ in different areas, and that is really important. This is an area that fits with our previous discussions about where we put decision making at a local level with regards to what sort of innovative transport solutions we could achieve.
We need to be mindful also of being cognisant of the net zero agenda. If we are talking about transport innovation with regard to missions, we have the opportunity to do that in a way that is consistent with the societal commitment to reducing our carbon footprint. Those things are really important.
On the international comparison, there is a need for greater work across the missions on understanding where we see things that work in a comparable nature. It is one thing to look at other countries and say, “Well, X has worked here, but is area X fully comparable to some of the areas that we know face the greatest socioeconomic challenges?” We cannot just pick and choose the things that we want to implement. When we look at evidence of innovation and success, it has to be comparable. Localism is also really important in forming innovative solutions, especially where transport is concerned.
Of course, when the buses stop running at 6 pm in Hartlepool, it would be good to look at how we can enable transport infrastructure to improve. I am sure that if Mayor Houchen could have a Tees Valley metro system across the area, there would be opportunities for the connectivity between, say, Hartlepool and Redcar, which is an hour trip rather than 15 minutes across the bay. The scale of what is required to get us anywhere near the standards in London is huge, but we should broadly welcome the idea.
I was interested to see in the paper that the amount of public transport used by people in the north-east was significantly higher than in other parts of country, probably because car ownership is so low. It is about what lies behind those statistics. We need to make it as easy as possible for people to use public transport. At the moment, our solution appears to be electric scooters, but I am not convinced that that is necessarily the right way to level up.
I have two quick points. Talking about London-style transport has been causing quite a lot of confusion—I do not quite see what that means. Is it ambitious enough? The London Mayor has more power than other devolved leaders around this country, but from an international perspective it is hard to think of a mayor of a major city who has fewer powers than the London Mayor. Only 8% of revenue is controlled by the London Mayor, and Whitehall still dominates about 70% of revenue streams in London. That is the first question: there is an inherent tension between devolving the power to run public services but not devolving the power to generate revenue to fund those public services. That is a tension that we will see again and again until the question of fiscal firepower is taken seriously.
On the second point, about what a fair comparison is, it is unfair to compare Glasgow to London or Newcastle to London, because London is this mega-city—it is one of a few cities in the world—so Tokyo is a fair comparison. Comparing Newcastle to London is an unfair comparison because they are fundamentally different in population size, economy and all sorts of things. Newcastle should be compared with Leipzig or Lyon—small or medium-sized towns with good, strong public transport that is organised in a way very different from the London transport system. Those are my two points.
Can I pick up on community involvement again and the need for ownership and the sense that a community belongs to a project? Perhaps Sacha and Rich could give their opinions on the street votes.Q
We welcome the spirit of street votes. They seem like a very sensible step forward to allow people to exercise a bit of agency at the neighbourhood level. We do not think they are anything near equal to the challenge that is before us. To emphasise the scale of the challenge we face, last year Demos asked people whether they would prefer to have more of a say over how money is spent in their area or rather have more money: people were twice as likely to say that they would prefer more say and less money than that they would prefer less say and more money. That speaks to how stark the situation has become.
There are various measures that we think could be taken to strengthen the ability of communities to exercise control over planning in their local areas. One that we would strongly recommend that the Committee considers is building into the Bill a community right to buy like that which is currently in law in Scotland. We would see that as a very sensible progression of the current measures.
The strengthening of the Localism Act would be hugely helpful, as would longer timeframes for us to get our act together—if you give us six months and a developer comes in and already has money in the bank, the developer is always going to win. It is about levelling up the opportunity to take control of assets, because if you control the assets, you are halfway there. There are other things that can be done. For instance, give us 12 months rather than six months—that type of simple approach. Level the field between local communities—certainly in our left-behind places—to give them longer to get together, because it will take longer. Be patient with them and help them build their capacity to do this, because there is an overwhelming desire for it. When you talk about taking back control and levelling up, that resonates, because they have so little control.