Business in the Community (BITC) has worked in left-behind places for decades, helping businesses to support communities to thrive. Our experience has shown us the role that the private sector can have as part of the levelling up agenda and our pilots across the country have given us a comprehensive understanding of what works and what does not. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to levelling up, the private sector can provide invaluable support to local and regional structure to deliver economic growth.
The themes covered in this response focus on how businesses can address some of the most significant obstacles of the levelling up agenda: how businesses can better support local and regional structures; creating sustainable, resilient local economies; and enabling programme delivery.
Making the most of what business has to offer
The private sector should be seen as a fundamental partner in levelling up. Without the support of local and national businesses, left-behind communities have little hope of transformation: they need businesses’ commercial knowledge, delivery expertise, employment opportunities and supply chains in order to take their place the national economy.
That is not to say that the private sector should be heard at the expense of the community itself. Our experience has shown that true partnership is the only route to a meaningful, long-term strategy for levelling up: communities, business and local government must work together to achieve a shared goal. A community knows a town’s assets, weaknesses and what makes it tick, whilst a business can provide the capacity to deliver complex, longer-term projects which left-behind places must lack by definition. Finally, local government provides the structure within which this partnership can work in the long-term.
Time and again, we have seen that a sense of ownership is essential to levelling up towns and delivering growth, particularly when it comes to social infrastructure.
Our Pride of Place partnerships, piloted in Blackpool and Wisbech, have shown the value of this collaboration between local government, business and the voluntary sector. The partnerships bring together leaders of local and national businesses, the council, the Local Enterprise Partnership and the voluntary sector to offer a multifaceted approach to local problems. We were pleased to see this model adopted in the government’s Town Deals policy, which sets out a similar vison for its Town Deal Boards.
In fact, largely as a result of the Pride of Place partnership’s work over the last few years, Blackpool is now a model for the Town Deals programme overall. The partnership there includes Blackpool Council, BITC and the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership and has created a network of Born and Bred ambassadors – individuals with a profound understanding of the issues Blackpool faces and how to address them. As a result, Blackpool was able to produce a comprehensive town prospectus and be one of the first among its cohort to submit a Town Deal Investment Plan.
Sincerely engaging the community makes it possible to reach all of it. Levelling up requires improving as many lives as possible in these left-behind towns, including the ones who are hardest to engage – this is often the most disadvantaged individuals, such as BAME populations. Barriers to engagement, such as language and awareness of projects, are hard to overcome, but particular effort must be paid to ethnic minority outreach. There is no silver bullet to this problem, which is why varied community engagement is so important, from surveys to town halls and school events.
Relationships between all three groups of community, private sector and government can be challenging, often marred by years of mistrust or conflicting priorities. Until these issues are resolved, places will have no opportunity to level up. We know that the role of a ‘broker’ is critical in forming effective multi-stakeholder partnerships, a view which is supported by The Partnering Initiative. This unique role can break down barriers between organisations, increasing senior business engagement and establishing effective cross-sector working, as well as making sure that plans are genuinely owned by the local community and go with the ‘zeitgeist’ of a place.
For example, our pilot in Wisbech brought this principle to life. Wisbech is a town in need: having struggled with skills, connectivity, life expectancy and social mobility. Without intervention, it was at serious risk of decline.
In response, local government created the Wisbech2020 seven years ago in partnership with stakeholders. An ambitious plan for change, it needed the support of local employers: after joining the partnership, Anglian Water brought in a broker to support the blueprint and mobilised their tier-one suppliers to pool their resource and expertise towards delivering the town’s vision.
Together, the private sector, community and local government have submitted plans for a new Garden Town; driven the re-opening of the train lines to Cambridge and the local area; created a much-needed community hub; and co-designed new courses with local colleges based on employer need. By listening to the community and providing the independent brokerage needed to steer discussions, the private sector in Wisbech has created strong, trusting relationships and made individuals amenable to change.
Recommendation: MHCLG should appoint and fund a group of ‘Connectors’ to facilitate the development of Town Deal Boards over the next three years, with an initial minimum of five this year. Recognising the differing challenges faced by larger and smaller towns, Connectors could work with a cluster of smaller Town Deals or a larger, standalone community.
Recommendation: Make community engagement a central pillar in all levelling up programmes and policies – taking specific care to listen to the experience of those with protected characteristics.
Sustainable in every sense
It is imperative that the green recovery and concerns about climate change and the environment are at the heart of the levelling up agenda, along with social sustainability. Too often, the metrics associated with levelling up – such as output, productivity and jobs – fail to paint an accurate picture of the long-term chances in a place. To make a success of the levelling up agenda, the government should measure metrics like the availability of good quality work, opportunities for education and reskilling, and mental health and wellbeing. Investing in people, as much as physical infrastructure, is necessary for sustainable local economies.
For example, in Blackpool, the Pride of Place partnership is working to encourage work readiness as part of the Opportunity Area’s activity, supported by the Careers Hub. An Enterprise Advisor Network is being developed to boost aspiration and inform career choices. There have been over 15,000 meaningful employer encounters in schools in Blackpool since BITC began its work. Likewise, Grimsby’s Town Deal agreement sets out how this can be achieved by action at the local/regional level, e.g. with universities in the area, and at the national level by engaging with the Department for Education to support infrastructure.
Mental health issues are particularly prevalent in left-behind places – Blackpool, for example, has the fifth highest male suicide rate in the country. The problem is exacerbated by deprivation, creating a social situation with low work expectations and aspirations which impacts directly on the potential to develop a skilled, resilient workforce which can enjoy all of the health benefits which go along with stable, well-paid good employment. Wellbeing must be made a central part of any transformative agenda to help break this cycle.
Recommendation: All levelling up policies should use metrics on the availability of good quality work, opportunities for education and reskilling, and mental health and wellbeing as measures of success.
Delivery – levers for success in the long-term
The delivery of smaller, more people-focused projects rely on understanding the levers for success, which will vary between towns and require real community engagement to understand.
Shovel-ready projects and quick wins are crucial to establish local credibility and facilitate delivery. There should be shorter-term, easily achievable, projects that demonstrate a willingness and ability of the collaboration to get things done. However, these should not be focused on at the expense of the long-term strategic vision for a place: we perceive a very real danger that immediate projects are prioritised at the expense of the delivery of plans for long-term, sustainable growth.
We know that capacity is an issue for local governments, particularly in left-behind towns. One problem is that funding pots are often siloed or almost inaccessible. Pooling of smaller funds, such as the Future High Streets Fund and Restoring Your Railway Fund would help avoid replication and increase visibility across local and regional structures.
Recommendation: Shovel-ready projects in left-behind communities must be closely aligned to a long-term project and wider vision, with the connection between the two being clearly demonstrated.
Recommendation: Funding should be made more accessible and less fragmented to assist with capacity.
About Business in the Community (BITC)
Created nearly 40 years ago by HRH The Prince of Wales, Business in the Community is the oldest and largest business-led membership organisation dedicated to responsible business.
We inspire, engage and challenge members, mobilising that collective strength as a force for good in society to:
Create a skilled and inclusive workforce today and for the future.
Build thriving communities in which to live and work.
Innovate to repair and sustain our planet.
Today, we have a vibrant membership of hundreds of businesses, large and small, connected by their conviction that their success is inextricably linked to society’s prosperity.
Together, our ambition is to make the UK the world leader at responsible business.
Isabel Wilkinson, Head of Media, Public Affairs and Policy at Business in the Community
 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Town Deals: further guidance, June 2020
 Blackpool Town Prospectus – 2030 Agenda for Action, 2019
 The Partnering Initiative, The Brokering Guidebook, 2005
 BITC, A guide to community regeneration in Wisbech – an Anglian Water perspective, 2017
 Greater Grimsby Town Deal Agreement, 2018
 Blackpool Town Prospectus – 2030 Agenda for Action, 2019