In June 2022, I described for the RSA how the UK government's flagship levelling up policy can't possibly work. In May this year, the cross-party Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee stated that the levelling-up policy has significant flaws and is unlikely to achieve its objectives because the little money available is going to the wrong places. I wrote, "Every time the Government splashes big money, it goes to the same people, those skilled at getting public funds." They highlight a district council in Rishi Sunak’s constituency of Richmond that received £19 million in the second round of levelling-up funding despite its high prosperity, and similarly affluent Dorset receiving 10 times more funding than poorer areas in the north.
Even setting aside distribution issues, funding for community-level initiatives is startlingly low by comparison with government investments into corporate-scale ventures. The Levelling Up Fund to 2024-25 is worth "up to" £4.8 billion (many doubt all of it will be allocated). Whereas for climate change alone, plans announced in March 2023 include topping up investment into renewable electricity to £80 billion since 2010, putting £20 billion into carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS), and allocating £10 billion into "boosting exports".
Investment into top-down change is an important, necessary function of government. However, both research and common sense suggest it should not have such precedence over community-level projects. Green initiatives at grass roots in particular are woefully under-supported, despite evidence that they can have massive multiplier effects. Investment into people and communities has great bang for the buck since small amounts of money can generate change with low risk. By contrast, a technology such as CCUS may cause ecological and social harm without producing any negative emissions at all - and geo-engineering generally introduces unknown climate risks, may be ineffective, and may be financially unfeasible.
The challenge with funding small-scale initiatives lies in their tendency to waste money on continually re-inventing the wheel. People who are motivated to start grass roots initiatives do not always have the business experience necessary to get funding and then to make the best use of it, and it is hard for them to learn from other communities what works and what doesn't. For this reason, I am building on a successful system for replication of NHS innovations to provide free AI-powered software that helps people start and build local social businesses, focused initially on climate adaptation. Hopefully tools such as this will go some way to redressing the balance between top-down and bottom-up initiatives - and not just in Richmond.