The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities must not overlook the role of local government in levelling up

The Ministry for Local Government is no longer. The recently renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has sent many commentators scrambling, asking: is this a cosmetic change, a nominal change in lieu of real change? Or does this forewarn of a central government that is marshalling the resources needed to tackle one of its stated priority challenges. Time will tell.

Whatever the intention behind the name change, local governments must be at the heart of any levelling up strategy. As part of Demos’ major research programme on relational public services, we have found that local governments are moving towards more relational models that draw on the communities, voluntarism and relationships that not only deliver better outcomes but can help build relationships between people and services – at a time when we may need them most. 

While central government continues to struggle to move away from focusing on inputs (such as the amount of money spent or the number of frontline staff) when managing public services and towards actually sharing power with people, some local councils have stopped waiting around for the problem to be fixed for them, and are leading the charge in redesigning our political system from the bottom up. How do we actually involve the public in politics in a way that isn’t just a tick-box exercise? Ask Barking and Dagenham Council, where their ‘Every One Every Day’ programme is encouraging traditionally excluded people into the heart of local government decisions. 

And if the levelling up agenda wants to help boost local economies that have ‘been left behind’ by growth in cities, the best way to do it may already have been developed by local governments. North Ayrshire Council has recently joined the likes of Preston Council to adopt a Community Wealth Building approach, to help encourage economic growth while also ensuring that the local community is involved in decisions. Their Community Investment Fund gives power to local communities to decide what and how to prioritise spending in their local area – from spending on digital learning officers to community support workers to tackle addiction and food insecurity. 

Local councils are succeeding in these efforts when they have, not just direction or support from central government, but crucially, strong relationships with their local communities – links they were able to draw on to respond to the pandemic. Monmouthshire County Council, for example, worked with local community groups during the first lockdown to respond to new needs, providing volunteers, training and safeguarding and using the council as a single point of contact to assist the myriad of informal community groups. As the New Local think tank points out, this is something that was only made possible by the Council’s active policy decisions to share power with community and third sector organisations pre-pandemic. 

While still a rarity, the examples here demonstrate that local governments – even within the current funding constraints – are often best placed to work with local communities to develop effective solutions to unexpected problems such as those caused by the pandemic. They are also able to play a pivotal role in building community and social infrastructure, as well as the local economic strategy necessary for levelling up to be a success. Local governments shouldn’t just be a delivery partner – they should be instrumental in designing the policy and defining what levelling up looks like in local areas. And one of the key questions for the new Department going forward must be: how do we listen to, learn from and build on progress already made by local governments?

Demos is currently running a programme of work reimagining the public services for the 21st century, as a way of strengthening our communities, relationships and social capital. In the coming months, Demos will publish the first of three deep dive papers this Autumn, exploring how local governments across the country can become more relational.