Before levelling up, the basics need to be right

Back in October, £232,457,372 of investment was announced for the North West to ‘Level Up.’ The Government website states: “The £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund contributes to the levelling up agenda by investing in infrastructure that improves everyday life across the UK, including regenerating town centre and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in cultural and heritage assets.” Exciting stuff.

Growing up in Liverpool in the ’80s, I’m no stranger to the impact that flagship projects can have. The 1984 Garden Festival was an attempt to generate increased tourism in the city. As a seven year old, it seemed it was there forever. Looking back, we must have visited every weekend. It is embedded in my mind as a wonderful place, with outdoor theatre spaces, trails, fabulous play space, a dragon slide and Feast ice-creams. Likewise, the reopening of the Albert Dock felt incredibly exciting. The bustling new attraction opened-up part of the city that had previously been off limits. It was invigorating to see this historic place transformed and to see our city on TV every day with the now infamous weather map. Even as a kid, I clearly loved buildings, heritage and spaces and could see the potential they had to bring people together and create excitement in a city. This was much needed in a city that had suffered badly under a Conservative government. I could sense that these were exciting, hopeful places.

Today, there are many parallels to the ’80s. Many people have other rather pressing priorities. These grand projects to create invigorated places and spaces that offer a respite, a moment away from the challenges of daily life. But they certainly don’t address the big problems and inequalities that we experience. Indeed, they aren’t even felt to be accessible, affordable, or relevant to many of our local communities. They do nothing to help most people’s quality of life, or in any way ‘level up’ the opportunities between the north and south, rich and poor.

This week, when reading about the significant financial challenges one local authority has, with the consequence being the need to make significant cuts including libraries, I felt incredibly angry. Local authorities have seen such drastic funding cuts over the last ten years, that making the books balance near impossible. Almost everyone has seen the impact and had services that we use on a daily basis reduced or stopped completely. For some, these cuts are an inconvenience, but for others they are life changing. Spaces such as libraries offer a lifeline; a free safe space, a place to search for jobs, to study, to get advice, to speak to another person and escape isolation for a moment, somewhere warm when bills are skyrocketing.

Covid has exasperated the problems facing local authorities, but it wasn’t the cause. I’m not naively pretending that there hasn’t been scandal, poor decisions, management issues, or – as in Liverpool – police probes and government takeover. It’s there for us to see and it is both shocking and incredibly damaging. But the government needs to hold up its’ hands and take responsibility too, rather than pretending it’s the superhero saving the day after the reckless local villains that have callously destroyed our towns and cities.

Some Conservatives, as you would expect, used this announcement of deep cuts to services to gloat about poor Labour mismanagement and sing the praises of Whitehall. To say how generous the government is, and how this transformational investment shows how much they really care about our struggling northern town and cities.

This funding boost is welcomed. But, during all the engagement work we have done over the last ten years, I don’t once remember anyone telling us the thing that would make the most difference to them would be investment in a Beatles inspired attraction. Or, indeed, some of the other projects that have received investment from the Levelling Up fund or the other funding programmes the government throws out to placate its new and already fragile following. It’s a piecemeal, ad-hoc strategy of investment and is as transparent in its’ aim as it is short-term in impact.

The fundamental question is, how can we pretend to be Levelling Up if we can’t get the basics right? If people feel ashamed of where they live? If they don’t want to bring their family – never mind tourists – there, because the streets are dirty, unsafe, and littered with boarded up units? If the council is struggling to afford appropriate levels of maintenance? If young people have nowhere safe to go, are experiencing an unprecedented wave of poor mental health, and are worried about knife crime? If an education system that isn’t fit for purpose and limits social mobility? If positive interventions such as youth workers and community support networks have all but disappeared due to funding cuts? If homeless people have nowhere to go, and no route to access housing due to the overwhelming pressure housing associations are under? If people struggle to find a job, because to travel between our towns and cities on a crumbling infrastructure limits real opportunity, whilst the government focuses on spending billions on HS2?

And I could go on.

People tell us they want the streets to feel cleaner and safer. For improved community services– especially and without question for young people. For better access to employment and training so they don’t feel the only option is to relocate to the south. For places and spaces where people can come together. For greater housing choice. For basic local services that they can afford. For improvements to the environment. For jobs that pay well. For places they feel proud of. To have enough money to live. To have someone to talk to, to feel heard, to feel valued.

My issue isn’t the funding. We’d be mad to reject it, or to claim it won’t have positive benefits for the region. Obviously, we should grab it with both hands. I love some of the projects that are being funded. In fact, we’re working on several of them. However, to decide that these are the things that will Level Up, that will “improve everyday life” feels another shallow promise. We need to get the basics right. To listen to what people tell us are their challenges and work to really make fundamental changes to the system. These projects are the icing on the cake, but at the moment the cake is missing.

Perhaps before we move the stairs to make climbing a little easier for those in the building, more people need access to the building in the first place.

Jo Harrop
PLACED Director and Founder

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