Investing in the future of our communities – Polly Lord in conversation with Matt Leach

December 16, 2022  

What is the Community Wealth Fund, and what would it mean for local authorities?

Polly Lord talks to Matt Leach, CEO of Local Trust, about a campaign to use money released from dormant assets to provide new investment for communities and social infrastructure.

Watch or read the interview below.

Most of our audience will perhaps have heard of the Community Wealth Fund, but might not be clear on what it means. Can you briefly give us an overview?

The Community Wealth Fund is a proposal that’s been made to government by  a huge coalition of organisations, spanning city mayors, local authorities, health bodies, not for profit organisations, and funders like ourselves. We’re asking government to commit a significant amount of the next wave of dormant assets – these are the leftover bank accounts that have funded the likes of Big Society Capital, or the Youth Endowment Foundation over the last 10 to 15 years. A new wave of dormant assets is about to be released – share certificates, leftover insurance policies – which could be as much as £1bn, maybe £2bn over time. We’re campaigning to say that a significant element of that should be committed to rebuilding the social infrastructure of some of our most deprived communities.

Why is it needed, in your view?

If you look at the statistics, you can start to map out bits of the country that are deprived. Local authorities are hugely aware of the places which place the highest demands on services, which have the highest levels of poverty and deprivation, which are suffering, particularly during the current cost of living crisis. Within this, the areas that are doing worse are those where social infrastructure has decayed over time, and quite often these are estates on the edge of towns, cities or places, perhaps that were set up as overspill estates, or neighbourhoods that were serving the needs of industry that’s long since disappeared. And often these are places that have not just suffered from economic decline, but have seen the loss of pubs, clubs, places to meet, institutes, community centres – the sorts of places that bring people together, and also the sorts of organisations that help organise and bring funds in. We call them ‘left behind communities’ for want of a better term.

Places that do much worse when it comes to social outcomes actually bring in significantly less grant funding from funders like ourselves, because there aren’t people to ask for funds. And they suffer from significantly worst quality of life indicators, just because of that lack of ability to bring people together. It’s not that they aren’t strong communities. But often they lack the building blocks that make places nice, good places to live. And I know from talking to chief executives and council leaders around the country, that they can see that as well. You go from ward to ward, and you’ll see some wards which are highly deprived, but they’re buzzing with activity. You can make a difference by reaching out and bringing organisations together, putting a small amount of money in to enable things to get happening.

But then there are also places where there’s less of that civic life, where there’s a huge burden placed particularly on local statutory agencies to make stuff happen, to reach out. One chief executive I was talking to recently said he knew small amounts of money could make a difference in some communities, but in other communities, you’d have to spend years to really make a difference. What we’d like to see from a Community Wealth Fund is long term, patient investment to support that sort of outreach, to rebuild civic organisations, to rebuild the sorts of places that people come together and meet, to get community activity going again. It’s sort of what we’ve been doing in Local Trust through the Big Local Fund for the last 10-15 years across 150 areas in the country. And frankly, our experience shows that a lot more of it is needed.

It’s not that they aren’t strong communities. But often they lack the building blocks that make places nice, good places to live.

Have you got any examples of where an approach like this is already working?

There are so many great examples. I spend a lot of my time going around the country visiting brilliant people in amazing communities making such a difference to lives – often based on what can happen when you put resources in communities for the long term and trust local people to make decisions. You can sit back and watch how that releases resources from everywhere else, it builds the foundations for really effective partnerships. A great example of that is Lawrence Weston in Avonmouth, Bristol where you see a community that’s often felt neglected and ignored – certainly that’s what they would have told you 10 to 15 years ago – but over the last decade, they’ve been transforming the area. They’ve brought in new business, built new social housing, and supported the existing social fabric. Their crowning achievement most recently is working with Bristol City Council and the local Bristol energy company to put in place a huge solar farm and what’s going to be the biggest wind turbine in Britain, which will provide funds to help sustain social activity well into the future without anywhere near as much reliance on the state as perhaps might have existed in the past.

But it’s not just the big stuff. Recently, I was down in Newington in Thanet where there’s a fantastic community organisation that has taken long-term funding to build capacity to bring local people on board and get them involved in making a difference in an estate which has had problems in the past. Now it’s an amazing place with art everywhere; they brought in a theatre in a tent for a week to provide theatre on the estate. The community centre has been a hub for tackling the cost of living crisis and what they’re doing is so impressive the council recently committed quite significant amounts of levelling up funds, almost half a million pounds, to extend and improve the community centre, building on the achievements of the last 10 years.

I’m sure when the Community Wealth Fund is implemented, it will look slightly different to the Big Local Fund, there may be different delivery mechanics and different timeframes. But I think if it’s to succeed, it needs to take with it some of the great stuff that underpins the Big Local programme. And that’s long-term, patient funding, people being in the lead and a real focus on rebuilding the social fabric of places that perhaps have missed out in the past.

How do you see local authorities working with the Community Wealth Fund to capitalise on some of those benefits?

Lots of local authorities have great relationships with their local communities. I think the best local authorities recognise their communities as a resource and a partner to help design and deliver services – and New Local has been at the forefront of pushing this as a message. Local authorities have got to be seen as key partners, with communities, when it comes to making the most of the Community Wealth Fund.

What we’d like to see from a Community Wealth Fund is long term, patient investment to rebuild the sorts of places that people come together and meet, to get community activity going again.

The Big Local model is one of money being put straight into communities so communities are able to take the initiative, so they’re incentivised to organise themselves, to move from perhaps being stuck in a role of criticising or petitioning to being people who can negotiate, who can bring solutions to the table, who can partner with local government. And certainly, that’s a model that you can see elsewhere in the world. In the US there are some examples from Joe Biden’s Community Revitalization Fund of national government putting money directly into the hands of communities, so they can then partner effectively with municipalities to make a difference. I think we should change the dynamic so we’re not always assuming that everything has to come through some sort of cascaded mechanism, down through different tiers of governments, with each doing what the tier above directs, but starting to accept that power can be spread right across society. What’s really important is realising partnership and potential at all levels.

Isn’t there an argument that this money should be going to local authorities to control and fund what they see fit?

I think it’s incredibly important that as the Community Wealth Fund is designed, local authorities, particularly local authorities who have ‘left behind’ communities on their patch, are involved in discussions about where the money goes. What are the areas that need to be prioritised? How can this sort of funding link into other work that’s being done to transform the nature of places where people live?

In terms of the funding itself and how its distributed, I think in some ways, that’s a bit of a technical question you’d have to put to civil servants rather than to me. The money comes through a particular route which involves financial services organisations putting funds into a reclaim fund, which then holds it for a while before distributing it to what are defined in legislation as good causes. So it’s not like standard public expenditure or funding that travels down through local government settlements – it couldn’t be done in traditional funding routes. But I’d be incredibly surprised if, when the Community Wealth Fund is rolled out, it isn’t done in a way which really incentivises proper engagement between local authorities and local people.

Where Big Local works best is where communities and local government partner, where they see the strengths that are brought to the table by both sides, and there’s a real focus on realising potential and making a difference to local people’s lives.

Why is the Community Wealth Fund targeted at deprived areas when those areas already have access to other funding, such as the Levelling Up fund?

The main difference is that the Community Wealth Fund is campaigning for hyperlocal funding, funding at a neighbourhood or housing estate level, which is very different from the sorts of funding that’s come through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the Towns Fund, or through Levelling Up. It’s not that some of that money doesn’t sometimes get out to left behind neighbourhoods, but actually we’re talking about funding at a very different scale – at LSOA or sub-LSOA level.

Local authorities have got to be seen as key partners, with communities, when it comes to making the most of the Community Wealth Fund.

I think the second answer is all about timing. Government funding is great – capital funding to take on assets or do up the high streets. But actually, when you’re talking about making profound changes to the social fabric of places, rebuilding civic organisations, creating sustainable community spaces where perhaps they might have disappeared 5,10,15 years ago with the loss of workplaces and trade union organisations – all the stuff that used to underpin many of those communities – you can be talking about a 10-15 year mission to make a difference.

This is a different sort of funding that we think should be provided in a different sort of way – long term, place based, with quite a lot of support wrapped around it. I hope that it would complement what’s going on already and support Levelling Up. But it’s got to be different and to make a difference, it’s got to be long term and that’s why dormant assets is such a good funding source to provide that.

The proposal has already been out for consultation. What happens next for your campaign?

We’re just coming up to Christmas and there’s lots going on, there’s a lot of snow outside at the moment and ministers are somewhere warm inside DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) looking at a huge pile of consultation responses. There were thousands of responses to the consultation; we think hundreds of them came from organisations that supported proposals for a Community Wealth Fund. We’ve seen people like Tracy Crouch writing an Op Ed for City A.M. in favour of the Community Wealth Fund. Last week, we saw a large number of MPs from across parties holding a debate in Westminster Hall calling for a Community Wealth Fund to be implemented. I understand that the Bishop of Manchester has also written to the Minister. There’s a really broad-based coalition of people saying now is the time to take this opportunity to commit long term money to communities and help them make a difference. But in the end, it’s for ministers to decide where they think they can have most impact with the Dormant Assets Fund.

For those who want to get involved in the campaign or find out more, where can they go for further information?

The starting point is the Community Wealth Fund alliances website. There’s a whole load of resources there, which will help people to both get on top of what the case is for a Community Wealth Fund, but also to find out how they can contribute to helping ministers hopefully make the right decision when it comes to what happens next.

Well, here’s hoping for a very joyous start to 2023. Thank you so much for joining me today, Matt.

For more information about the Big Local programme, please click here.

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