Dormant Assets Funding: Community Wealth Funds

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:44 pm on 6th December 2022.

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Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 4:44 pm, 6th December 2022

The community wealth fund is a place-based initiative aimed at natural communities in left-behind areas, typically with a population of around 10,000 people, which is much smaller than the typical local authority serving such areas. For that reason and others I have mentioned, a local authority is unlikely to be a suitable body to lead the community wealth fund process.

By involving communities in the process, whether planting street trees, investing in community pantries or creating a group of community callers, we will move away from doing things for people, or even with them, to giving them as much ownership as possible. The more local people are involved, the more transformative outcomes are. Partnerships work.

For decades, we have had a system that has treated citizens as consumers of services, rather than members of empowered communities, so a fundamental shift in our national thinking will be required to enable this new social model approach. However, it is an approach that the Government can embrace because it is a fundamental principle of Conservatism to believe in small Government and local, community-led solutions. We must challenge the narrative that suggests the solution to all inequalities lies in growing ever-larger, top-down-controlled public services. That undermines the power of communities to support their health and wellbeing, and stifles a philanthropic approach, which has been a lifeline during the last year.

During covid, we woke up to the power of communities. During the first lockdown, I conducted an online survey to gauge residents’ feelings, including the impact of volunteering on their mental health. The findings featured in the “Connecting Communities” report, which I co-authored for One Nation Conservatives. Of Stoke respondents, 39% stated that covid-19 changed their view of the local community. One resident from Stoke-on-Trent Central said about lockdown:

“I think it] highlights the untapped—undervalued—potential of people and neighbourhoods across the Country…Local community is essential in times like COVID. At first people were much more helpful and considerate but sadly the effect of this is fading fast. I feel that good will could have been harnessed and directed better locally and nationally.”

With the community wealth fund, we have the opportunity to harness this.

The indicator that shifts most when communities are part of levelling up is civic pride. When we see improvements for community outcomes, we also see improvements in other areas. Many success stories of locally empowered communities have shown that we can expect investment into projects that enhance environmental sustainability and stewardship of local resources, such as ethical food production and better green spaces. I was delighted to welcome several such local initiatives to the local food summit I hosted in Stoke-on-Trent. Standing Tall 2gether is based in Bentilee and improves the lives of local residents through food activities, training and bespoke volunteering, and has a household essentials refill hub. Birches Head Get Growing is another local initiative that encourages people to offer their time and skills to support unmet needs in the local community, moving from a gift model of support to an energetic exchange. In2 Health and Wellbeing is a social enterprise committed to improving the health and wellbeing of disadvantaged young people in Stoke-on-Trent. It uses sport, physical activity and education to engage local people across the community.

I am convinced that not only would the community wealth fund help to meet Government goals, but we should also expect knock-on benefits for the economy. Replenishing stocks of social capital is vital for seeding economic activity, but also through the direct supply of local employment, opportunities for training and skills development, and building and rejuvenating community assets.

Indeed, there is strong evidence for the impact of a community wealth fund. Modelling by Frontier Economics estimated that a £1 million investment in social infrastructure in a left-behind area could generate approximately £3.2 million in fiscal and economic benefits over 10 years, actually helping generate savings. Combined with the fact that in areas with locally led solutions there is a faster decline in crime rates, the community wealth fund is an exciting opportunity to significantly boost the Government’s levelling-up agenda without placing pressure on public finances.

Community wealth funds can also play an important role in supporting early-stage social entrepreneurs in marginalised constituencies by connecting them to wider support to maximise their growth. The proposals would provide extra initial start-up support, among other things, in the most underserved parts of England. Harnessing the full potential of communities will require targeted interventions to create jobs, stimulate inward investment and grow social enterprise and trading charities.

Members of the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods have expressed support for the community wealth fund in the past, and the Government listened when earlier this year we made the case for including the fund as a potential new beneficiary of the next wave of dormant assets. The dormant assets scheme has created a unique opportunity to repair the social fabric of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Now that the consultation has finished, I am grateful for the opportunity to restate my support and to recommend that the Government capitalise on the potential of investment through a community wealth fund.

Backed by a growing alliance of over 600 public, private and community sector organisations, the fund would provide long-term investment to rebuild essential social infrastructure in the left-behind neighbourhoods that many of us represent in Parliament. It would empower communities to play a much more prominent role in local decision making and inspire civic pride, as has already been demonstrated. I am incredibly grateful to my colleagues who have supported our cause so far, and I urge them to keep up the momentum so that we can deliver real and meaningful long-term change for communities like those in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central and across the country.