The recent New Local conference 'Stronger Things 2021' investigated the importance of community power and the ability of communities to tackle crises. A key theme explored was the 'Levelling Up' agenda, a prominent part of Central Government’s current discussions around inequality. However, there are significant challenges facing the delivery of any levelling up agenda.
‘Levelling up’ can be defined as the standard of living and opportunities available to the poorest in society increasing over time to come closer to the standard of living and opportunities available to the most affluent. Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at Oxford University, reminds us that according to this definition ‘levelling up’ occurred in Britain in every decade from 1920 to 1970. Only after the 70s was this trend reversed. The current environment now provides even further challenges to achieving Levelling Up, given the risk of a K-shaped recovery from the pandemic, as discussed by Alex Smith (Chief Executive of The Cares Family) at the conference.
The conference talks emphasised the need to address the complexities and nuances of the levelling up agenda. While national political discussion will often focus on the need to support specific areas of the UK or to address high-level and impersonal statistics about inequality, there is a need to look much deeper at a local level. To find solutions to the specific challenges that give rise to disadvantage and disempowerment, it is essential that devolved areas continue to hand over power and resource to their local communities. Central government, or even devolved local governments, cannot achieve the same depth of understanding of the complex barriers facing individuals that local communities can. Therefore local people and community organisations should be looked to for the co-creation of solutions.
Additionally, we must see a cultural shift at local level to build stronger and more connected neighbourhoods. As Alex Smith noted in his Stronger Things 2021 presentation, 72% of UK adults believe that knowing their neighbours is important but 73% of UK adults do not know their neighbours. It is these missing connections that allow individuals to be left behind and weaken communities and neighbourhoods. Without these connections, communities and neighbourhoods are unable to wield the power and influence that they could achieve by working collectively.
The pandemic response saw communities and neighbourhoods come together in a different way. That spirit must be captured before it dissipates if we want to achieve the Levelling Up agenda. Those of us who work in and with the public sector must therefore deepen the ways that we work together in partnership with local communities in order to create an environment that supports disadvantaged communities and individuals to better support themselves.
 In a K-shaped recovery, people who were wealthier going into the COVID-19 pandemic would emerge even more well-off due to being able to continue working from home while making savings in their costs of living. Meanwhile those who were economically and socially disadvantaged before the pandemic would emerge in an even more precarious financial position due to many factors including the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on employment rates in certain sectors and higher risk of serious illness from Covid-19. After a K-shaped recovery, our society would be more economically unequal than it was before the pandemic.