To get Levelling Up right we have to look beyond the ribbon-cutting

By Daniel Partridge

As we all await the full details of Levelling Up Fund Round 2 to arrive, at PRD we’ve been discussing our hopes for what LUF2 could mean for the country, how it could be better, how it could do better.

A scan of the national papers and social media shows we’re not alone and a lot of the messaging is about more and bigger: more money, bigger projects, bigger bangs for bigger bucks.

The Levelling Up Fund will quite rightly inject investment into communities which have suffered from austerity and disproportionate, long-term under-investment and it’s very tempting to get on this bandwagon, but we feel there’s a more important (if less sexy) conversation to be had about how councils can really make this investment work.

The real action happens after the ribbons have been cut. Whilst the LUF process places a lot of emphasis on pricing and delivering the capital works, the operational ‘lives’ of the spaces and assets shaped by the investment also require careful planning. Councils and communities will need to carefully consider the different delivery arrangements they will need for operations and the different risks they will face (income surety from commercial leases for example); these are important areas which are less prioritised in the funding application.

The temptation of big, shiny new buildings needs to be questioned. We need to decouple economic growth from resource consumption, making better use of the buildings we already have by avoiding wholescale demolition is an essential tool for dealing with the climate emergency. The market needs to start valuing retrofitted structures and low-carbon materials even more than newly built buildings; big shiny Cat-A buildings that ‘do it all’ can disincentivise exploration of the wider neighbourhood and will come with high service charges that can be a barrier to access for local tenants. Maybe we should all be more like Stockton on Tees? Goodbye shopping centre, hello riverside park? Major private developers will tell you public realm and the spaces between buildings make for distinctive and successful places.

A sustained commitment to place-centric partnering will define the projects that are successful over the long-term. A tremendous amount of engagement and participatory work is undertaken with stakeholders in preparation of funding bids, gathering letters of support and gathering views. This momentum needs to be carried through into the long-term operational phase as the period of reinvention, evolution and growth of a place sparked by the investment will only really be beginning when the money is spent. Robust structures for participation and capacity-building to support stakeholders to work together for the long-term matter.

We’ve been privileged to work with and for councils across the country to plan and deliver successful places and projects. Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about our approach or to chew the fat with us about levelling up.