Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to transfer monies from the Dormant Assets Scheme into a new national endowment called the Community Wealth Fund, to be invested for the purposes of improving the local environments and quality of life of deprived communities, including through building social capital and social infrastructure; and for connected purposes.
As the first Conservative MP for Sedgefield since 1931, I, like so many of my colleagues on the Conservative Benches, was elected with a mandate to level up every community across the UK. In our first two years in office, we have worked tirelessly to level up opportunity. The Prime Minister announced the towns fund; the Chancellor set out a landmark £4 billion levelling-up fund for investment in the infrastructure of everyday life; there is the UK shared prosperity fund, to support communities after Brexit; and now we have a Department focused on delivering our levelling-up mission, so that every community across the country can benefit from the policies of this Government.
Most of the proposals announced so far will help improve economic fortunes across the UK, as we build back better from covid and meet the challenges of net zero. I know how important investment in physical infrastructure is—it can be a significant injection of belief in an area—but as I said earlier this week on Second Reading of the Dormant Assets Bill, levelling up needs to be more than that. It is time to tackle the next frontier of levelling up, and to rebuild the essential social infrastructure that our communities rely on, because both places and people are important. Research and evidence strongly suggest that places need investment in their social fabric as well as in their physical infrastructure. People need support and resources to nurture and develop the type of relationships that underpin the health and wellbeing of our communities and of the country as a whole.
We have seen the benefits of strong social connections over the past year, as local residents stepped up during the pandemic to protect their communities from the virus, forming mutual aid groups to ensure that vulnerable residents were looked after. As we move beyond covid and look to the future and to other challenges, we need to build on that community spirit. The Bill seeks to do just that—to help restore local pride in place, through investment in people, so that they develop the confidence and capacity to build the relationships needed to help them take action in their community.
If our levelling-up ambitions are to reach every part of the country, there must be levelling up in those places where the social fabric is most frayed. We need a “least first” approach to levelling up, with investment targeted first at those areas that have the least. It is for that reason that I am bringing forward this Bill in my role as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods, which is supported by 76 Members from across both Houses.
The 225 left-behind neighbourhoods that we represent and advocate for face severe economic deprivation and are significantly lacking in the social infrastructure that is so important to our way of life, but which many of us sometimes take for granted. That infrastructure includes: essential community places and local spaces where people can meet; the local activity and engagement with civic life that supports a sense of local ownership, and fosters belonging and civic pride; and physical and digital connectivity, which is vital in connecting residents to amenities, services and opportunities. These neighbourhoods are spread across the UK, and include Trimdon, Thornley and Ferryhill in my constituency. As research done for the APPG has found, such neighbourhoods face significantly worse outcomes than all other areas, including those that are equally economically deprived but that at least benefit from a foundation of social infrastructure.
The work of our APPG over the past 18 months has made it clear that these neighbourhoods require investment in the politics of belonging. We need to make these neighbourhoods better places in which to live and grow up; to invest in local talent and opportunities; and to provide these neighbourhoods with the support and resources that they need to flourish. Communities thrive when they enjoy a vibrant local civic life, whether it is built around a shared local history, heritage and experiences, or important local assets and institutions, such as a pub, library, football club or community centre.
These cultural and heritage assets help to create bonds of trust, and to cement the relationships and strengthen the ties that bind us to each other and to the place we call home. They underpin our unwritten social covenant and generate trust between the people who live in a place—a trust that can be relied on in times of difficulty. These are things that local residents understand. Recent polling from Survation found that two thirds of residents in left-behind neighbourhoods felt that their neighbourhood was missing out on community facilities; over half said that their area had fewer resources, such as parks, leisure and sports facilities, and places to meet. As importantly, almost 60% of residents said that they wanted more of a say in how future funding in their area was spent.
When it comes to levelling up an area, the community is best placed to know what needs to be done. We should not only listen to local people, but trust them to take the lead. We need to level up by devolving down, and give communities the confidence and capacity to take action on the issues that matter most to them, as well as the support and resources that they need to improve local outcomes. That is the purpose of the community wealth fund that I propose in the Bill. As we heard in the Chamber on Monday, the expanded dormant assets scheme provides almost £900 million, which could initially be used for this fund, so there would be no drain on the public purse.
I welcome the aim of the Government’s Dormant Assets Bill, which is to broaden the scope of dormant assets. The money will be committed to good causes. My Bill will ensure that that is a reality; it will set up an endowment that supports those places that are most left behind in designing their own future, achieving greater control over their destiny, and building long-term prosperity.
If the community wealth fund is to transform left-behind neighbourhoods in a way that previous schemes have not, the money must be invested in such a way as to build the social capital of residents while delivering visible and tangible benefits to their neighbourhoods. Research by the University of Cambridge looking at the past 40 years of place-based regeneration schemes found that the key determinants for driving lasting change included local decision making, targeting funding at the neighbourhood level, and ensuring long-term funding. Recent research for Onward reflects those findings; it found that while the involvement of communities is essential, many communities require up-front investment in order to participate fully.
The community wealth fund would build on the learning from previous regeneration programmes and support residents in taking the lead on making decisions about how its money is spent in order to achieve lasting change. That would turbo-charge community confidence and capacity, increase the stock of local social capital, and boost civic pride and local quality of life. Over the long term, we expect this investment to pay dividends by increasing residents’ ability to develop longer-term strategies for delivering change and tapping into the opportunities on offer across their wider region.
The decision on how and where to commit funds must be driven by the significance of the local social impact, and not some arbitrary calculation of the financial return on investment. We must try to reinforce this opportunity by making the approach as relational and human as possible, and remove whatever bureaucracy we can. I welcome the fact that the Government confirmed on Second Reading that they are not opposed to considering a community wealth fund, and that the idea is actively being considered in the levelling-up White Paper discussions. I also welcome the warm words of my noble Friend Lord Parkinson, who acknowledged that the core features of a community wealth fund—community decision making at a hyper-local level and investment in social infrastructure—have an important role to play in improving access to opportunities for everyone, particularly those in more deprived communities.
I fully support the objectives of the proposed consultation, and indeed hope that the result will be a community wealth fund, but I urge the Government to listen to the many organisations that have backed the call for a community wealth fund, and to colleagues from across the political parties. At the very least, I hope that the Government will ensure that the proposal for a community wealth fund is included in the consultation. I sound a note of caution: we need to initiate investment in social capital as soon as possible. For much of what we will consult on, we already know what we will find, so I encourage only minimal consultation, to allow for action as early as possible.
A community wealth fund would make a significant contribution to delivering the Government’s levelling-up objectives in many of our most left-behind communities. It is what is needed if we are to realise our ambitions of a new social covenant: a national endowment vesting greater control directly in the hands of local communities. My Bill, supported by my APPG, will set in motion the mechanisms by which we can build trust and achieve genuine and transformational change in left-behind neighbourhoods. It will do this by giving communities the opportunity to take the steps and identify the measures that they need to thrive. I would of course welcome the opportunity to talk to Ministers, together with members of the APPG, about the design and implementation of a community wealth fund. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Paul Howell, Jo Gideon, Jim Shannon, Dr Kieran Mullan, Dame Diana Johnson, Alexander Stafford, Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck and Rosie Cooper present the Bill.
Paul Howell accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March 2022, and to be printed (Bill 215).