No Place Left Behind: The Commission into Prosperity and Community Placemaking
This detailed report by the Create Streets Foundation sets out to help improve the quality of lives in left-behind neighbourhoods by promoting policies and practices that improve place, health, happiness, and wellbeing, as well as promote community pride, power and agency.
Levelling up our left behind places
The report opens by stating that England has been scarred by geographic imbalances for far too long. ‘Left behind places’ are not just products of economic decline or income inequality but are also a legacy of post-war urban design, poor planning, centralised decision-making and under-investment in the social infrastructure that is so vital to local communities.
To replace a spiral of neighbourhood decline with a virtuous circle of wellbeing and prosperity, the report states that we must invest in the physical fabric of local places and the social fabric of local communities – and trust communities themselves to lead it.
Whilst the authors welcome the government’s commitment to levelling up, they insist that top-down investment must not focus on expensive heavy infrastructure at the expense of catalysing bottom-up improvements to local places. Put simply, government funding should be more about empowering than imposing.
Connecting our communities, greening our towns and taking back our streets
The report remarks that, whilst lockdown has shown us all the value of green and pleasant places, too many of our cities, towns and villages suffer from fast, noisy roads, run down public spaces, unreliable public transport and decaying buildings. It states that parks, not car parks, are an essential ingredient of social and economic success, yet, despite this, over eight million people live more than a ten-minute walk from a local park, including more than 250,000 in the most left behind wards in the country.
To address this, the report proposes that government should; extend and simplify the Urban Tree Challenge Fund to increase canopy cover by 10% by 2025, repurpose the existing roads budget to include reducing or removing urban motorways to create boulevards, linear parks and public spaces, and include health, pollution and wellbeing indicators in the KPIs of council chief executives, highways, planning, and housing teams.
The report also calls on the government to commit to provide light rapid transit systems for all cities and larger towns in England, legalise e-scooters, and deliver a comprehensive national bus network which connects every neighbourhood with regular services.
Thriving places need hubs, hearts and high streets
The report states that neighbourhood centres are vital for prosperous community life and the identity of places; but many have been hit hard by economic change, the decline of mid-twentieth century retail and the impacts of the pandemic. The future of the traditional high street is on a knife edge: it must reinvent itself or face terminal decline.
To solve this, the report calls for urgent support for independent businesses, a revolving asset fund to transition vacant commercial property into beneficial uses quickly, and smarter planning policies aimed at diversifying high streets to be delivered using a new model of Community Improvement Districts. It also stresses the importance of strengthening national planning policy support for a ‘town centre first’ approach.
Giving communities the Right to Buy and the power to regenerate their towns
The report stresses how people in left behind places feel that they need more places for people to meet in their areas. The loss of social facilities like community centres, libraries and pubs is keenly felt, and when the college or the last health centre closes it can be a potent symbol and driver of decline. In an increasing number of places, where neither the market nor the state are able to provide these essential assets, communities have stepped in to provide these themselves.
To provide left behind communities with the necessary powers and resources to take control of local assets, the report calls for the government to complete the task begun with the Localism Act of 2011 and create a Community Right to Buy which is matched with real resources. To tackle the ‘farming of dereliction’, the report also calls for the proposed Right to Regenerate to give councils the power to require improvement to eyesore buildings and give communities the right of first refusal to acquire derelict public land and buildings.
Neighbourhoods first: renewing homes place by place
The report notes that many left behind places are marked by aging and poor-quality housing stock. The challenge of retrofitting the nation’s homes to the net zero carbon standard by 2050 is most daunting in these places, where values are low and owners have little incentive or ability to invest in improvements. Left behind neighbourhoods need street-by-street investment to bring homes up to standard.
To tackle this, the report calls to kickstart decarbonisation of the nation’s homes by retrofitting the social housing stock, create Neighbourhood Improvement Districts, analogous to Community Improvement Districts, for residential areas requiring major retrofitting and improvement works, and fund the building and transfer of homes into long-term, non-profit ownership in failing housing markets.
Institutions and investment are the building blocks of local transformation
The report concludes by exploring how investment can be better deployed to develop local ecosystems that can catalyse sustained regeneration. It calls on the government to replace short term, competitive funding pots, with more certain, needs based funding streams for levelling up, including the creation of a Community Wealth Fund, worth at least £2bn, as an independent endowment for the UK’s left behind neighbourhoods.