The Increase VS Programme: key lessons for levelling up deprived communities

New research led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) shows that large infrastructure projects which are the focus of the UK government’s levelling up agenda and include support for business start-ups, must also offer sustainable, local investment in deprived communities. Professor Zografia Bika and Adi Gaskell explain

The “levelling up” policy that was introduced in the Conservative party’s 2019 election campaign was a direct response to the challenges faced by the so-called “red wall” constituencies that made the historic shift toward them in that election. These constituencies had often seen considerable economic disruption and hardship, with regional inequalities evident throughout the United Kingdom.
   
As the United Nations explains, this is far from a problem unique to the UK, with the issue of regional inequality exacerbated by the Covid pandemic to the extent that the World Economic Forum recently identified inequality as a key risk facing the world in 2023. With the UN estimating that two-thirds of the world faces rising inequality, the desire to create a fairer and more equal society is arguably the challenge of our time.

Making concrete steps
After a series of delays, the much-anticipated levelling up white paper was published at the start of 2022, with the paper outlining the “moral, social and economic programme for the whole of government”. At the heart of the programme was the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which provides over £2.6 billion to compensate for the loss of money from the EU structural funds.
    
The paper outlines the need to support communities in terms of community and place, skills, and support for local businesses and people. We have been researching the efficacy of a programme designed to improve the employment and entrepreneurship prospects of residents of a number of deprived communities across England and France, which has given us insight into just what does, and does not work in this crucial area.
    
INCREASE Valorisation Sociale is a five-year (2018-2023), £10.8 million initiative developed by nine housing associations and training providers in England and France. The project, which has been supported by both Interreg France (Channel) England and the European Regional Development Fund, is designed to support people as they journey back into either employment or entrepreneurship.
    
As of September 2022, the project has resulted in over 1,000 new businesses being created and over 1,100 people have been helped back into work. Indeed, approximately 40 per cent of participants have recorded a change in their work or education status, either as a result of returning to education or achieving a change in their employment status. This is a pleasing result, not least because the project specifically targeted people who were traditionally a long way from the labour market, such as those who are long-term unemployed, have disabilities, or have mental health issues.

Invisible workers
These people form some of the 3 million workers identified by Harvard research who are often frozen out of the labour market as a result of characteristics that prompt recruiters to either overlook or downgrade their potential. Ensuring that these invisible workers are given a fair shot not only ensures greater equity in the labour market but also helps to ensure that communities that can feel “left behind” are no longer overlooked and ignored.
    
Our evaluation of the INCREASE VS programme has delivered a number of crucial lessons that should help both this and subsequent governments make real headway with the levelling up agenda, especially as there remain ongoing fears that the challenging nature of the situation is prompting a cooling of enthusiasm.
    
Firstly, it’s important to understand that local conditions demand local solutions. We worked with a wide range of communities across England and France and no single solution emerged across them all. This is a crucial basis to start from, especially with concerns around the highly centralised nature of British democracy. For levelling up to be effective, it’s vital that interventions not only understand the local economy but are also crafted by local stakeholders.

Effective support
In our research, housing associations were crucial “agents of change”, as they were not only respected members of the local community but also had a level of funding and permanence that allowed them to facilitate the kind of long-term support needed to deliver meaningful change.
    
The permanent nature of the housing association’s presence also helped to ensure that the support they offered wasn’t judgemental. Participants were most able to improve their circumstances when they were helped in an inclusive, responsive, practical, and interactive way, with support both continuous and ongoing. This degree of permanence is important as this is not a problem that can be tackled with short-term solutions or quick wins.
    
Instead, communities often face a number of difficult challenges that require time and perseverance to overcome, so long-term support is vital. This is as true for the individual support provided as it is for the support on a community level. In our research, local ambassadors and gardiens provided crucial wraparound support to participants. These individuals often acted as the social glue that helped to bind communities together and helped to maintain shared spaces and peer-learning groups.

Making levelling up work
These lessons have helped to inform a number of policy recommendations we believe could not only ensure that real progress could be made in improving the fortunes of people in deprived communities, but their affordable and accessible nature makes them more likely to be delivered than some of the large-scale infrastructure projects that continue to dominate current levelling up thinking.

Improve digital literacy
There has been considerable attention and investment in recent years into advanced digital skills, such as cybersecurity, software development, and data science. While these skills are important, it’s equally important to raise basic digital literacy in deprived communities so that people can participate in modern society and access the opportunities for work and training that the internet enables.

Encourage people to return
Various projects have attempted to attract fresh human capital into communities, with most of these focusing their attention on skilled professionals, such as digital nomads. While these schemes may have merit, the people targeted lack any real connection to those communities so can easily be viewed by locals as outsiders. Instead, we advocate conscious efforts be made to encourage people who have left their home communities for work or education to return, bringing with them their knowledge, connections, and capital.

Develop broader connections
The networks of returnees promise to add crucial social capital to deprived communities, but efforts should also be made to help communities better develop such capital locally. Many of the participants in our research had lived in their communities their entire lives so their networks lacked breadth. More attempts to broaden the connections people have could pay dividends.

Improve social infrastructure
These efforts could be supported by the development of greater social infrastructure in communities. Research from the University of Cambridge advocated 25 per cent of levelling up investment should go on improving social infrastructure as this helps to develop the networks people need to thrive, while also giving people a sense of pride in their communities.

Tap into net zero
Last, but not least, there is considerable potential for new jobs to be green jobs. Indeed, research from the University of Michigan found a considerable crossover between the skills required in old energy jobs and those in clean energy jobs. The levelling-up white paper mentions the importance of the net zero agenda to impact all aspects of the economy, and our research showed that this can be the catalyst to help people back into work while providing community-based energy.
    
Change is often the “art of the possible”, so our policy recommendations are designed to be not only locally driven but also cost-effective. They can also be achieved in a reasonable timeframe and so provide communities with impact in the short and medium term. Rather than focusing on long-term physical infrastructure, our findings highlight the important role investments in social infrastructure and human capital can also play.

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