Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:56 pm on 6th December 2022.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jo Gideon. I am in a Stoke sandwich, between her and my hon. Friend Jack Brereton, which is very nice—I do not know where Kidsgrove and Talke is today.
I regret that my hon. Friend Paul Howell is not with us today. Sadly, he has suffered a bereavement. I want to put on record my appreciation for his leadership and the strong role he plays in this place in the campaign for a community wealth fund. I also pay tribute to Local Trust, some of the staff of which I suspect are watching. That brilliant organisation has promoted this proposal from outside Parliament.
I think we all recognise that this is a cross-party proposal. I agree with much of what we just heard from Mrs Hodgson. I do not think that a community wealth fund requires a Labour Government, nor would it prosper only under a Labour Government. This is about getting the great mission of community development, levelling up or economic prosperity—whatever we want to call it—out of the political cycle and out of the hands of central Government. It is a tremendous measure that is in exactly that spirit.
My work outside politics was mostly in charities. I found that the most effective aspect of our work is not about the type of service that is delivered—not the “what”—but it is about the “how” and the “who” that do it. It is the quality and nature of the service that matter. What is crucial is giving people a sense of belonging and agency. That is what we need. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central made a very good point about the importance of treating people not as passive recipients of services but as active agents in their own lives and their own prosperity. The idea of a community wealth fund speaks to that, and would strengthen that spirit across the country.
I echo the point my hon. Friend made about people stepping up, establishing mutual aid groups and taking responsibility for neighbours during in the pandemic. It is not unfair to say that, in a sense, it was easy then: people were being paid to stay at home, so they could take part in their communities. The need was obvious—people who were isolating needed to be delivered food and medicines—and the demand was short term, only a few months at a time. However, before and subsequently, and increasingly because of the effect of the pandemic and all the lockdowns, we have long-term, wicked, entrenched problems and people who are very overstretched. We do not have the capacity in our communities that we had during lockdowns.
We need to build our social infrastructure. That was the key recommendation of the report that I wrote for the Government in 2020 on how we might build on the community spirit that the lockdown had brought forth. The answer is quite simply that we need to create the conditions in which people can be good neighbours and that means creating social infrastructure.
We can do a lot with policy. This is not the moment for the discussion about how we reform public services and local government, but there is one big thing we can do. I know the Minister has been harassed and harangued on this topic by many of us over many months. He has taken it with great patience and I hope he is not going to suddenly flip and say “Ah, no!” to us at the end of the process, because we have lobbied very hard. The big idea is that we establish a great new national endowment for our communities—a community wealth fund, which would support those non-commercial or sub-commercial activities that are so essential to local growth, including parks and libraries, arts and sports centres, facilities for the elderly and for the young and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central says, social enterprises and community businesses. We need to develop the capacity of local places.
I will end with one more observation. It is not enough to provide the money; we need also to ensure that communities have the capacity to bid for it, plan the services and then run the services themselves, so there is a capacity-building element in this. I pay tribute to the people who are trying to develop Community First, a model based on Teach First that gives people the opportunity straight out of university to become community organisers in an area of the UK and to develop their skills that way. Creating more opportunities for community organising will be helpful. We need to build social capital, Madam Chair, and even if financial capital is all you care about, which I am sure it is not, the evidence is that social capital is what drives economic growth and not the other way round. So we need to invest in the infrastructure of our communities and our proposal will do that.