Friday, 20 October

By Lucy Webb, Director at Inner Circle Consulting


There is a stark, growing inequality gap in the UK. People living in deprived areas have a life expectancy ten years lower than their wealthier counterparts. Girls living in deprived areas will live 19 more years in ill health than those in more affluent neighbourhoods.  The task of ‘levelling up’ is mammoth.


Alarmingly, though, while healthcare stats head south, so does data on development projects to address them, as local authorities, struggling with financing, rethink community development schemes. This is a bad move for local people and for business. Inaction costs people’s quality of life and also costs councils dear in terms of creating bigger problems down the road. You don’t need to be a doctor to understand that prevention is better than cure.


As regenerators, investors, planners and policy-makers, we have a duty to deliver for those who need our help the most. We also have a duty to demonstrate the best use of investment when budgets are tight. Tackling the levelling up crisis – for it is a crisis – enables us to do both, if we hold our nerve.


This might sound naïve. I know how difficult it is out there to get anything delivered. I see the barriers every day in my job: High inflation, labour shortages, supply chain shortages, austerity budgets and the impact on resources and morale of managing austerity budgets for more than a decade. Covid and its impact are also still being deeply felt. But barriers can be brought down. Not all walls are an impasse.  Regeneration is a long-term game that requires long-term thinking and significant vision and leadership.


Long-term thinking means being firstly being honest about what’s going to happen if you pull a project. Failing to narrow the gap between housing demand and supply will only add to longer waiting lists, heftier temporary accommodation bills and longer-term social care issues for families unable to open a bank account, settle their kids into school or get a job. Failing to repair and retrofit leaky homes fails to reduce bills for those on low incomes or tackle health catastrophes of damp and mould – or prepare for the climate change time bomb that is heading our way.


Investing in all of the above and investing in your town and city centres is the only way to keep providing access to jobs, social and cultural opportunities and to better ensure people can have healthy and happy lives that bring plenty of human interaction and community support. Good social infrastructure in the right location and with the right scale of provision is the only way to ensure everyone can access the services they need. Ensuring communities are well-connected, both digitally and via good, reliable public transport is critical to help people access skills and jobs and the resources they need to stay fit and well, as well as to keep in touch with their support network.


And doing all of this together makes it easier to move each new project along. Your local residents will worry a lot less about the impact on their town’s character and capacity when projects show provision for all and deliver the very best outcomes.


In short, capital investment now will save (and create) revenue down the road.

And that means holding our nerve, through all the disruption and difficulty along the way. We need to hold the long-term view, keep focussed on our vision of what we want our local world to look like, and be tenacious in delivering it.


Local authorities should remember that they are natural convenors and can take the lead in crowding together private sector partners, anchor institutions and the voluntary and community sector to look at what’s possible. Creating this kind of collective makes all the difference in setting and driving a long-term, ambitious, vision for a place and finding and using all the levers available.


Defining a Theory of Change will help you build a programme of activity that starts with immediate wins that can build both community and investor trust and belief in the change that is possible. Building strong partnerships and governance will get you the shared buy-in and ownership of that vision that commits everyone to do their bit and hold each other to account.


And looking creatively at delivery – both the means and the end – will help you to find the most creative and efficient solutions. Think about the benefits of bringing different council teams together in their planning so health talks to education, education talks to housing and economic development and regeneration are embedded across all the work. Get rid of silos and the benefits to residents are tangible.


Finding the right investment partner is crucial. With current inflation levels so high and public money so thin, this is a vital task. Fortunately there are socially-responsible, patient investors that want to put their money to good use (and get a healthy return at the same time.) Social housing is a key attraction at the moment. Do your homework, consult experts and don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions to make sure you are an appropriate match.


And don’t forget, as you roll up your sleeves, that phased delivery is better than no delivery. Progress delivered bit by bit is still progress.


If this rings true to you, and you’re thinking about your next steps to make progress, contact me at [email protected] – our team is at the ready to discuss your issues and help you move forward.