Reducing the UK’s stubborn regional inequality is the right thing to do both economically and politically. This was reflected in the debates of the last general election where ‘levelling up’ was defined as improving local neighbourhoods, creating strong local economies and ensuring everyone has the chance to live long and healthy lives. However, in the three years since levelling up first entered our political vocabulary, the government’s flagship agenda has achieved very little.

The major flaws of the levelling up agenda are reflected in both how it has been designed and how it is being delivered. The process has been top-down. Central government continues to design levelling up policy and is failing to consult communities along the way. In delivery, it continues holds the purse strings, deciding who gets what from opaque funding schemes that is has designed, such as the Levelling Up Fund or the Towns Fund.

Not only is levelling up not working, but the regional inequalities it was designed to address are getting worse. In recent years, poorer parts of the country have still received less public spending per person than those more affluent regions. Specific levelling up objectives, such as increasing healthy life expectancy are getting worse in many areas across the country, with people born in areas with the highest rates of multiple deprivation, like Blackpool and Nottingham, expecting to fall into poor health well over a decade before the state retirement.

A bottom-up approach to levelling up that is rooted in the needs of communities is needed. There needs to be greater clarity over the powers and resources communities need to help achieve ambitious change. To understand what this approach could look like, IPPR and IPPR North are collaborating with experts in communities across the country to develop ambitious ideas. To do this, we will be conducting participative research – a research method that prioritises working with the public - to co-develop solutions to address our country’s regional divides. In different parts of the country, we are undertaking ‘futures workshops’ – a method that engages people in an exploration of the current situation before collaborating with them to imagine a preferred future.

The first of the weekend-long workshops was held this summer in Hastings. Compared to the national average, seaside towns like Hastings tend to have higher levels of economic polarisation, lower educational achievement, higher levels of long-term health problems, neglected architecture and large amounts of poor quality private rented accommodation. There is a clear need to level up places like Hastings.

A team of researchers from across IPPR opened the two-day workshop by discussing with our participants what they thought a ‘levelled up’ Hasting should look like. The term ‘levelling up’ was seen as a broad, ambiguous and politically motivated phrase that was, in the view of many, not achievable or designed to be so. As the workshop progressed, our participants identified three areas for action to make levelling up happen.

Investment in public servicesin the view of our participants, there needs to be greater investment to improve public services and make it possible for people to live a good life. This includes services such as healthcare that address the mental health challenges that residents face, childcare provision that is affordable and reflects local salaries and investment in innovative public transport solutions such as reviving Hastings’ historical tramways. However, our participants felt that investment was sorely missing from the government’s current levelling up agenda and that a lack of public investment held Hastings back from fulfilling its potential.

Empowering communities enabling communities to help each other came out as strong theme of our workshop discussions. Over the course of the weekend, our participants heard from two local organisations, Black Butterfly and Hastings Commons. Black Butterfly is a cultural heritage and wellbeing organisation supporting people of African heritage and other ethnic and underserved communities in the Hastings and St Leonards Area. Hastings Commons is a community-led approach to transforming the area around the old Observer Building in Hastings. Both these organisations shared their experience of working to improve and develop Hastings. Our participants felt that more of these community-led initiatives should be encouraged but that current governance structures, both at the national and local level, prevented this from happening. For example, participants noted that too often, it seemed much easier for for-profit businesses to take hold of vacant high-street units or abandoned buildings than it did for community organisations.

Our participants believed that enabling greater ownership of local assets by the community and finding ways to support people to develop local plans for community spaces would help transform the local economy and revitalise Hastings. The work of Hastings Commons to take ownership of the Observer Building and transform it into a hub for community businesses served as an example that the group would like to see replicated more widely. Giving communities the capacity to develop local initiatives and finding ways to help community businesses access the funding they needed to get off the ground were seen as a priority by the group.

A positive vision for the townour participants had a strong, positive vision for the future that built on Hastings’ strengths and avoided erasing its past. Hastings has a long and successful history as a key fishing town and, more recently, it has become home to a vibrant and bohemian cultural scene. Participants wanted pleasant neighbourhoods that build on the historical character of the town and the cultural assets it has to offer. Creating more sustainable places that support local food systems through urban farming, provide energy resilience through local renewable energy, and offering reliable and affordable public transport were also a key part of this vision.

There was a sense amongst the group that the regeneration of Hastings had not always served the communities as hoped. The closure of the University Centre Hastings was given as an example of a previous initiative to revitalise Hastings that had failed to offer long term opportunity for the town. Our workshop participants felt that more needs to be done to knit back together the fabric of places like Hastings. Creating a sense of community by establishing shared spaces like community centres and giving people a chance to be involved in local decision-making processes were given as examples of how places like Hastings could build on their full potential.

Participants wanted policy to be tangible and deliver long-term change, both in terms of improving public services such as local health provision, as well as the physical spaces of towns by establishing more shared green spaces. In their view, more needs to be done to restore the links between people, to build a sense of community, nurture civic pride and give communities a genuine stake in the places they live. There was agreement across the workshop that Hastings has a strong network of local festivals and cultural offerings that could further be expanded to help bring more people together and create a sense of belonging with the town.

Our workshop participants also felt that democracy in the UK was not working for the people of Hastings. There was a sense that for too long, people felt as if they had no power to shape the places they lived or that they have been given the opportunity to meaningfully connect with politicians and develop a shared vision for Hastings. Reforming how our democracy functions and restoring trust in national and local government will be crucial to enable communities to work with local leaders and articulate their levelling up visions. Our democracy must be more transparent and, in the view of our participants, be innovative in the way it includes people locally through initiatives such as citizens assemblies.

In the months to come, IPPR and IPPR North will be undertaking further research across the country. Next year we will outline our ambitious plan for an alternative approach to levelling up that delivers for communities, at a time when the country needs all regions to part of UK success.

Jonathan Webb is a senior research fellow at IPPR North and is leading IPPR’s levelling up research.