As we anticipate the Levelling Up White Paper tomorrow, much of the debate will centre on homes, jobs and infrastructure. But it is important that in this we don’t forget about the implications of levelling up for people and communities.
HOPE not hate Charitable Trust has long understood that, in times of economic scarcity, community relationships become more fragile. We have seen, time and time again, how hardship can brew deep resentments, to a distant political establishment and an economic model that is unfeeling to place or people. But rather than working towards solutions, these frustrations are often exploited by those who seek to divide, with immigration and growing diversity having become totemic emblems for the grievances which people feel across Britain.
Our fight against the far right has seen far right groups repeatedly exploit people’s fears and frustrations in this way, deliberately seeking out deprived Northern council estates to sell their hateful politics, and spreading misinformation about asylum seekers ‘jumping the queue’ in places struggling with a scarcity of public resources.
And while each time hate has lost out to hope with the decline of the electoral far right in the UK alongside dwindling street movements. But the anger and disaffection these groups both exploited and catalysed has not disappeared, and neither have the underlying problems.
Wealth, infrastructure and industry, as well as cultural investments, continue to be concentrated in core cities. The populations of towns are getting older, as younger graduates leave for cities to find work. Towns are, on the whole, less diverse places with less history of migration, where people are less likely to have meaningful contact with someone from a different background to themselves.
Our 2018 report Fear, Hope and Loss, mapped attitudes to starkly lay out how a feeling of loss, a lack of opportunity and economic decline in post-industrial and coastal towns across England was creating pockets for hostility. In the National Conversation on immigration, we found that immigration was seen as a national issue, passed through a local lens. Localised pressures or points of tension could often spill over into anti-migrant sentiment in places with little history of diversity. Sometimes these were directly related to immigration, such as neighbourhoods overwhelmed by large numbers of houses of multiple occupancy for a rapidly growing population of migrant workers. But often they were not about migration at all, and instead a reflection of broader resentments, about housing, healthcare, or a lack of secure employment.
For these reasons, levelling up the country should be a concern for antifascists.
Across the world, we have seen the rise of populist politicians exploiting genuine suffering brought about by decades of uneven economic growth and political detachment. We know that unless some of these underlying conditions are addressed, people will continue to feel this way, and the potential for a populist right to take hold remains. We need to not just respond to the manifestations of resentment, but treat the causes.
For the past two years, our Hopeful Towns project has been working to understand what makes a place confident, optimistic and open; to address the root causes of hate; to stop divisive narratives from taking hold in the first place. We understand that to build stronger, more resilient communities, we must challenge the politics and organisations that spread division and hate whilst also working to build the capacity of communities, and our society as a whole, to resist their messages.
Issues like good public transport, decent and secure jobs, and good housing, all have a big social impact. These are cohesion issues too. Getting these issues right means that resentments are less likely to form in the first place, and it’s harder for hateful narratives about immigration and multiculturalism to take hold. It is not that ‘left behind areas’ are ‘racist places’. It is that the most cohesive communities are often those that are most resilient in other ways.
The levelling up agenda holds huge potential to repair the social fabric of our communities. But genuinely levelling up the country will take more than slogans and vague aims. Already, many communities are divided, and many people have been struggling. Moreover, if the wrong decisions are taken, there is the potential to not just fail in ‘building back better’, but for many to suffer even more.
HOPE not hate will be following the debate closely over the coming weeks, and making our voice heard to ensure that levelling up has a real impact on building community resilience.
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