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As one of the Conservative MPs successful in breaking through Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ in the 2019 general election, I am under no illusions as to the nature of the task before us in reconnecting ‘left-behind’ neighbourhoods. The promise to level up was one of the reasons that voters in Sedgefield put their trust in me at the ballot box – and as a Government it’s essential that the levelling up agenda is focused on meeting the needs and improving outcomes for the 2.4 million residents of England’s 225 left-behind neighbourhoods.

These are the communities on the periphery: the social housing estates on the edges of the towns and cities of the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, and the coastal or former colliery communities, often at the end of the line – or on no line at all. Not only are these areas economically and socially deprived, but they also suffer from a combination of poor connectivity, both digital and physical, a lack of community assets, and low levels of community engagement in the form of groups, organisations, and networks that bring people together.

Due to this deficit in social infrastructure, these left-behind neighbourhoods experience significantly worse outcomes across education, health, and employment than other equally deprived places, and England as a whole, as well as facing economic hardship as a result of the pandemic. That’s why it’s essential that in levelling up we adopt a ‘least first’ approach, targeting investment and attention at those areas that have the highest levels of community needs.

We must also go about things the right way, getting the policy, priorities, and process right. We need to recognise that the work involved reconnecting and rebuilding the social fabric of those communities that have been overlooked by governments for decades is a long-term commitment. Recalling previous regeneration programmes that failed to sufficiently involve communities in decision-making, it’s also essential to support and resource communities themselves to take the lead in the decisions that affect their local areas.

Neighbourhood-level investment needs to go hand-in-hand with supporting and resourcing communities to build the confidence and capacity required for transformational and enduring change.

This is where the importance of social infrastructure, and social capital, comes in. When reconnecting left-behind neighbourhoods, attention usually first focuses on physical infrastructure: building new railways, roads, and roundabouts. This of course plays a major role, and from my own experience in working to reopen the Stillington Spur to passengers in the North East, reversing the Beeching cuts will be vital in ensuring that communities cut off from opportunities can be reconnected. The publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy therefore represents a very welcome and significant change in investment policy.
However, reconnection is about much more than investment in economic infrastructure.

Alongside boosting physical and digital connectivity, of equal importance is targeted investment in the local social infrastructure that is so essential to underpinning modern healthy and prosperous communities and economies: the spaces and places in the community where people can meet and interact, from community centres and pubs, to libraries, leisure facilities, and parks, as well as support for the local groups and organisations that have played such a vital role in the response to the pandemic.

As Co-Chair of the cross-party All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for left-behind neighbourhoods, I’ve been working with colleagues from across Parliament to help tackle the social infrastructure deficit faced by left-behind neighbourhoods. As we have discovered through our research and APPG evidence sessions, as well as suffering worse outcomes across a range of metrics, this deficit can have deleterious effects on other aspects of life in the community, such as through lower levels of social capital, the ‘glue’ that binds our communities together.

Recent Survation polling published in our APPG’s Communities of trust report found that there were much lower levels of volunteering and membership of local community and social action groups in left-behind neighbourhoods. As a result, left-behind neighbourhoods have had less community capacity to respond collectively to the challenges they face and less success in accessing external support and resources. This issue was identified in Communities at risk, the APPG’s research into the early impact of Covid-19, which found that left-behind neighbourhoods had lower levels of mutual aid activity than other equally deprived areas, and received significantly less external charitable Covid-related funding support, around a third of the amount of the national average for both.

That’s why the APPG has been making the case for urgently needed investment in the social infrastructure of left-behind neighbourhoods. Over 40 parliamentary members recently wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the Government to commit £2 billion of funds from the next wave of dormant assets to create a new Community Wealth Fund targeted specifically at left-behind neighbourhoods.

If levelling up is to mean anything, it must mean that left-behind neighbourhoods have the capacity and access to the funding, knowledge, support, and resources needed to reconnect with the skills, opportunities, services, people, and places that the rest of us often simply take for granted.

Paul Howell MP is the Member of Parliament for Sedgefield and the Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for left-behind neighbourhoods. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine The Great Levelling?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Images: UK Parliament and Zach Rowlandson]