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A Labour vision for levelling up: Place and power


With Labour consistently ahead in the polls and conference season rapidly coming into view, now is the time for the party to start setting out its plan for government.

In recent months, Labour has begun to tentatively sketch out it’s alternative to levelling up. Lisa Nandy and her team have put forward five-point plan for levelling up which covers jobs, high streets, transport infrastructure, devolution of power and community safety.

While these areas of focus are broad and somewhat amorphous, two stand out to Power to Change. We’ve long been involved in debates on the nature of devolution and how we remake our high streets as civic spaces fit for the 21stcentury. Both policy areas offer a rich electoral seam which – if mined effectively – could prove decisive in the next election.

Indeed, while the call to ‘take back control’ was one of the most effective political slogans of recent years, this doesn’t look to have led to greater feelings of agency. More in Common research finds that a majority of Britons want more say in decisions made at both a local community level (63 per cent) and a national level (65 per cent).

Focus group work from Public First has shown that, when voters are asked to define what levelling up means to them, the high street comes up unprompted time and time again. YouGov polling for Power to Change uncovers strong support for local people having more say over the future of, and access to buildings in, their town centres and for high street profits to be reinvested in the local economy.

The salience of the high street for Labour-Conservative switchers in the ‘red wall’ was identified by Deborah Mattinson, Keir Starmer’s Strategy Director, in her book Beyond the Red Wall. Data from the Local Data Company collated for Power to Change shows that many of these constituencies which will form the next electoral battleground have persistent vacancy rates well above the national average.

Where next?

There is clearly lots of data out there to emphasise the importance of Labour focusing on place and power as it looks to the next general election. But what are the implications of this, in policy terms?

For Power to Change, this means turning to communities and community business as trusted partners to a future Labour government – one which acts as an enabler and supporter of the energy and entrepenurial spirit that exists within our communities.

The social and economic impacts of community businesses are clear. Community-owned spaces contribute £220m to the UK economy, and 56p of every £1 they spend stays in the local economy, compared with just 40p for large private sector firms. Community businesses are often vital actors in areas of economic disadvantage – so called ‘left behind’ places – and work with people most disadvantaged by the labour market.

Since 2014, the number of community business has more than doubled from almost 4,500 to more than 11,300 at the latest count. Rachel Reeves has committed Labour to “help create 100,000 new businesses over the next five years“. How about 10% of those are locally rooted and accountable co-ops and social enterprises – community businesses?

More substantively, Labour could help capitalise a £350m High Street Buyout Fund. £100m of government grant could leverage a further £250m of private and social investment, demonstrating that Labour backs business. This fund would help tackle one of the biggest scourges of our modern economy – distant, irresponsible commercial ownership on the high street with little stake in the future of a place. It would compete with private investors, move quickly to purchase important high street buildings – from old department stores to vacant music venues – and transfer them into community management and ownership over time.

Finally, Labour should be embracing a progressive approach to community-powered politics. The centre-right made some of the early running on this front, including through an influential paper from the New Social Covenant Unit. Since then, the Co-operative Party have published their own paper on community power, and laid out the building blocks from which they believe a Labour and Co-op political vision should be built.

Tangibly, this could mean committing to develop a Community Power Act should Labour win power at the next general election. This would bring with it a promise to devolve power from Westminster and Whitehall – beyond the offices of metro mayors, and town halls of local councils – right into our neighbourhoods. This should be the basis for any bold, forward-looking programme for government in the 2020s.


For more on the problems with the levelling up agenda, and the Labour alternative see ‘Levelling Up? that’s a job for Labour‘ or ‘Please Prime Minister, Can We Have Some More?’