We have had decades of one-off funding projects designed to resolve deprivation in coastal communities, or restore coalfield communities to life and health, or repurpose single-industry towns where the industry has either left town or become obsolete. Yet, nothing has really been sustained or turned these communities round.
The case of Hastings pier
In some towns, like Hastings, regeneration has grown best from the bottom up and not from the top down. The sad case of the pier is an example of what can go wrong. Vast sums were spent on reviving the pier, which had almost been destroyed by fire. However, the project failed at the very point of completion. The pier ended up being sold for a fraction of the cash invested in rebuilding it.
Levelling up Dover?
Some of the latest funding applications will have cross-party and cross-community support. These have a fighting chance of being loved and supported. Others, however, sometimes appear to reflect the social and cultural dominance of one group over another. These can make an unlevelled up area feel worse, because social cohesion has been lost in the process.
Dover was a long-term loser in the levelling up stakes. However, recently, it received funding for the ringed installations in its Market Square (£2.44m), which one wag depicted as being used as a carwash. Dover’s Market Square was once a vibrant part of the town, but now it is an open space seeking a purpose. Perhaps a really well set-up market, with sufficient funding to promote it, and sustained low hire charges for 6–12 months might have been an option worth trying.
In the latest round of competitive ‘levelling up’ funding, Dover has again scored £18.2m for Bench Street and £45m for a traffic improvement scheme at Dover Eastern Docks. I am not sure whether applying a cost–benefit return of £1.43 for each £1 spent is all that good. Anything that can reduce the gridlock suffered in recent years is to be welcomed, but is that ‘levelling up’? On that basis, painting some white lines or installing a pelican crossing is levelling up. The Bench Street scheme at least introduces ‘supply side’ funding to Dover, rather than top-down art installations. Training and small business assistance might grow the economy from the ground up. A benefit–cost ratio of 1.43 is not sparkling when bus service improvements deliver 3+.
So, are there better ways of levelling up?
Here are some hints and tips:
- I think we should stop comparing London and the South-East with elsewhere. Deprivation and decay are found wherever the local economy has lost its way and purpose. It doesn’t really matter where levelling up is needed.
- Central government funding works best when it is used in what are termed supply side functions, such as connecting communities by rail, road and the internet. In this way, visitors and investors can get there easily and set up businesses or spend money in the community. There is no point in building a swanky arts centre if no one can get there. Funding education and training is vitally important. There is no point in opening a mega hi-tech gigafactory if the qualified staff are not available.
- We have seen a plethora of funds, all needing funding bids. This means there is an awful lot of wasted effort and dashed hopes left in their wake. Wouldn’t it be better to draw up an economic plan for each area, with agreed objectives, such as improved road, rail, internet and education services?
- Each plan would have to have general community support and be accepted by central government, which is no mean feat. The next task would be to agree a long-term budget so that each priority area is dealt with.
- While the supply side projects are underway, it is important to help localised organic growth to take root. Very often, the standard method is the greenfield project. A greenfield is offered to a (mainly) foreign investor to create a factory. Further inducements are then offered, such as favourable tax advantages, to seal the deal. The trouble with this methodology is that often it is not enough, and it can sometimes be short term. The BritishVolt gigafactory project is an example of this idea, which failed. Sometimes the government is required to act as an investor to ensure that the project goes to full term. This is a big ask. Past history and central government’s ineptitude in picking winners are quoted as reasons not to take an active part in enabling projects to move forward. So, the project fails at the starting gate.
- A lot of towns/areas don’t need mega projects or big-ticket projects to regenerate or increase economic activity. It might be better to set up a series of locally based banks or financial institutions. These could advise, assist and lend relatively small sums to small and medium-sized businesses. The advantage is that growth is created from the bottom up. Money circulates locally and is not remitted to London or overseas.
- Here, I would quote the case of Burnley and the famous Bank of Dave as an example of what could be done. Dave Fishwick, a local minibus/van entrepreneur, set up a local bank for local needs in the face of resistance from the financial establishment, who can only think of centralised, remote, joint stock retail banking. Many towns have lost some or all of their retail banks. Even if they exist, lending decisions are made according to a narrowly focussed algorithm, so the human factor is removed. This means that many small businesses fail to thrive because of a lack of timely, relatively small-scale finance.
- The story of the Bank of Dave has been told by means of a newly released film. It embellishes the story a little, as films do, but it should be required viewing for all politicians and civil servants. I hope that it does for local community-run banks what The Titfield Thunderbolt did for heritage railways.
- Had there been a network of Banks of Dave in 2020, the huge losses the Government suffered in distributing Covid loans might have been reduced.
- Finally, there is no point in levelling up if the community lives in poor housing, has debt and credit problems, or relies on food banks to sustain any sort of existence. So, alongside each Bank of Dave there should be a sister institution: a combined Credit Union, general advice centre and community housing project. Here, families and others who need good-quality, low-maintenance, low-running cost, secure housing can start to work their way up to a decent level of prosperity and get useful, timely advice when they need it, instead of being led from pillar to post, or lectured by politicians who tell them that they are not being thrifty enough.
Doing things in the same old way
Often, we carry on doing things in the same old way because we cannot think of better ways to approach a problem. Perhaps a locally based finance system might be worth trying. This does not stop big projects being operated, but it may spread the wealth in a way that is not a hand out but is instead a hand up.