More than two years after Boris Johnson swept to victory at the 2019 General Election on the back of a promise to deliver Brexit then ‘level up’ the whole UK, the government has published its plan for precisely how it intends to do that. Simultaneously, the government published two other long-awaited documents: its response to the Kruger Review commissioned in the summer of 2020 and details of how the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) will operate.

As the levelling up White Paper was intended to mark the next step forwards in the government’s plan to regenerate the country’s regions, the Kruger Review was designed to harness the response to the outpouring of community spirit during the pandemic, and the UKSPF is the domestic replacement for EU Structural Funds. All three documents are of significance to the social sector. So what have we learned?

The paper represents a major step forwards in recognising the importance of social capital, our social fabric and wellbeing.

The levelling up agenda has been plagued by criticisms stemming from its lack of definition. From the very beginning, what the government wanted levelling up to achieve was very broad: from reducing inequalities in life expectancy to improving local productivity. But the solutions it was offering to those challenges were too narrow. The government was going to rely solely on investment in rail, road, broadband and housing infrastructure to regenerate left-behind regions – and so fail at what it set out to achieve.

A determined coalition including civil society organisations, think tanks and umbrella bodies has changed that. The White Paper recognises that the social capital – the strength of communities, relationships and trust – and institutional capital – local leadership, capacity and capability – in a place are as vital to levelling up as the infrastructure, skills, innovation and financial capital available. Indeed, it argues that if issues of social and institutional capital are not resolved in geographies where they’re weaker, those places can get stuck in vicious cycles of decline, with persistently worse productivity and quality of life.

To break those cycles, the government states that renovating the social and cultural fabric is as "equally critical" as creating good jobs or boosting economic growth. To achieve its aims, it wants the very best of government, the private sector and civil society to work in partnership. And to hold itself to account, it has introduced measurable missions, including increasing wellbeing, pride in place and civic engagement in all parts of the country by 2030.

This is a major step forwards in the government’s economic narrative – one that opens the door to significant opportunities for the social sector. A government more focused on measures like wellbeing and social capital is one that is explicitly more aligned to the objectives of most charities and community groups.

However, the government is not yet certain how best to improve social capital, restore the social fabric or increase wellbeing.

The concepts of social capital, social fabric and wellbeing are by no means new to the social sector. But only niche parts of government have been engaged in them in a serious way. Concrete, large-scale policy interventions to drive forwards these objectives and achieve these aims included:

  • A somewhat decentralised Shared Prosperity Fund.
  • The release of £44m for the Youth Futures Foundation, the Foundation for Social Investment and Fair4All Finance from the Dormant Assets Scheme.
  • A £560m National Youth Guarantee to provide opportunities for young people.
  • The previously announced Volunteering Futures Fund and £205m investment in grassroots football.

But these interventions otherwise fell short of meeting the challenges set out. However, the government has set out a three-pronged approach to tackle that.

1. Filling the knowledge gap

A lack of data about, for and from civil society has long held back the social sector. It restricts innovation and good policymaking, as it is much more difficult to prove how effective interventions are. In the case of levelling up, it acts as a major barrier to understanding pride in place, which is one of the agenda’s core priorities.

To make steps to rectify this situation, the government has committed to establish a civil society satellite account, as recommended by the Law Family Commission on Civil Society. This will be a major enhancement in the data available to demonstrate the value and the importance of the social sector. This sits alongside a DCMS project to improve evidence and data, and to explore the social value of civil society.

Recognising that current data sets like the Community Life Survey – which provides information on volunteering, social cohesion and community engagement – don’t provide big enough samples, the government has committed to explore new ways of gathering this information. This is in addition to developing new measures on pride in place, improving wellbeing data, creating a Spatial Data Unit and a new body focusing on local government data. These are all likely to provide highly valuable information for the social sector to utilise.

If delivered, these developments should begin to fill in the blanks and allow stronger policymaking on civil society and our social fabric for the long-term.

2. Continuing to consult

The government is clearly seeking new policy ideas on social fabric and social capital. This is evident through a number of strategies and consultations that the levelling up White Paper commits or re-commits to.

Perhaps the policy which looks to have the greatest potential is the Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships, which seeks to explore community power, building the evidence base to better understand how to support communities and to listen to them – particularly disconnected ones. The scope of this strategy includes the future of the existing Community Asset Transfer and Asset of Community Value Schemes, and may be linked to the ongoing review of the £150 million Community Ownership Fund.

At the same time, the social sector will be contributing to the review of the Dormant Assets Scheme, the future of National Lottery Community Fund and an exploration of how the Community Infrastructure Levy can be better used. In addition, the social sector will be consulted on how to leverage private sector investment into community and neighbourhood infrastructure, as well as taking part in a review of neighbourhood governance.

Considered together, that is a major package of work the government is committing to undertake to boost social fabric and social capital.

3. New trials and innovation

The government has also committed to a small number of pilots, looking at different approaches towards community empowerment. This includes a recommendation from the Kruger Review for local votes for funding and new models for community partnership, such as ‘Community Covenants’ - agreements between councils, public bodies and communities to shape the regeneration of their areas and improve public services.

This trial-based approach to policy development can also be seen in other areas of the levelling up plan, with the government committing to experiment with Innovation Accelerators in three parts of the country and four pilot schemes on school food standards and training for school governors. There are also plans for an experiment aimed at improving health through wrist-worn devices, and pilot schemes to improve attendance at schools – among others. However, it is notable that many of these pilots have funding, locations and plans already decided, whereas the two pilots stemming from the Kruger Review are somewhat more nascent, indicating far more work is required to get them off the ground.

Nevertheless, these two experiments are a good first step and having a robust approach to evaluation and learning throughout them could provide important insights for the social sector.

Ultimately, the tests of real change will be how these developments are funded and embedded.

The new narrative towards social capital and the commitment to enhancing wellbeing are major steps forward in the UK’s economic narrative. But those steps will only result in real change if they are properly funded and embedded.

Some of the structures that would help to embed those changes appear to be on their way. For example, the government has established a Levelling Up Advisory Council, with three expert sub-committees. One of these sub-committees is focused on local communities and social infrastructure, looking at the role of neighbourhood policies and strategies for building community capacity in left behind areas.

But it is not yet clear how much of the rest of government outside DCMS and DLUHC have committed to the social capital, social fabric and wellbeing agendas. Indeed, there are significant gaps where government has missed opportunities to better integrate civil society into its plans, as a strategic partner beyond pride in place.

The attitude of the Treasury here is crucial for obvious reasons. Other departments will only be able to gather the data that is needed, turn new strategies into action and expand successful pilots into widespread schemes if the Treasury is on board and makes money available.

Perhaps the biggest signal of the Treasury’s commitment is the Shared Prosperity Fund and the Levelling Up Fund. These both provide a level of funding that is significantly below that delivered under previous governments. This follows the spending plans which were set out last Autumn and which were more generous than in the previous few years. But many departments still have less money than was the case in 2010, while being asked to deliver much more. Local government funding fell by £10 billion (17%) in the decade leading up to the pandemic, school spending per pupil will stay below its 2009/10 level until 2024/25 and in both cases poorer areas saw bigger hits to their funding.

Today’s White Paper set out bold ambitions, but the funding plans are not yet in place to meet them. The case-making which civil society organisations, think tanks and umbrella bodies undertook to move the levelling up agenda so substantially onwards is not over. But new data, new trials and new consultations on social fabric and social capital create a huge opportunity to keep up the momentum, and to secure both the policies and the funds which are needed to truly level up the country.