Editorial: What’s the West doing for its ‘left-behind’ communities?
The North unitary seems to be listening but is the West?
Last Summer NN Journal launched our Levelling Up project looking at the issues faced by communities in Northamptonshire’s five ‘left behind’ areas.
The places, which have been identified by an All Party Parliamentary Group as ‘left behind’ (defined as being in the most deprived ten per cent of areas and also in the ten per cent of areas with greatest community need) are Queensway in Wellingborough, Kings Heath and Talvera in Northampton, Kingswood and Hazel Leys in Corby and Avondale Grange in Kettering.
We have spent hours visiting youth clubs, churches, community centres and simply walking the streets of these estates to find out what the people living there think about the areas, the challenges they face and what can be done to improve things.
Almost as soon as we launched the project, councillors in the North of the county sprung into action. Newly elected Cllr Zoe McGhee has spoken passionately about making change happen in these areas and is now leading a sub committee set up to work with communities to come up with a plan on how to do it. The committee has held meetings and walkabouts in each of the areas and will make recommendations based on those to the council’s scrutiny committee.
Wellingborough councillors King Lawal and Matt Binley have also attended community meetings in their ward of Queensway to hear the concerns of residents following the murder of teenager Dylan Holliday on the estate, as has the leader Jason Smithers and other senior members of the council.
There have been many issues at the North unitary since the reorganisation of the county’s local authorities (which have been extensively reported in this publication) but on the county’s ‘left behind’ areas the council is leading the way. The term ‘left behind’ is now regularly used by councillors in the North and the problems in these areas are often discussed. Even the Wellingborough MP Peter Bone is now backing calls from ward councillors for the police to take action to tackle crime on Queensway.
Compare this to what is happening in the West of the county and the difference is stark. As far as we’re aware the only reference to ‘left behind’ areas in council meetings has come from Cllr Dennis Meredith who represents Talavera. He has repeatedly called for £1m to tackle the issues faced by residents in his ward.
“I haven’t seen any money coming our way. I’m doing my best to help the local community but West Northants Council is leaving me on my own.”
Last August we spoke to leader Jonathan Nunn about how the council would level up the two ‘left-behind’ areas in the West. At the time he said:
“Both Talavera and Kings Heath have done okay out of public funding in the past, there’s often initiatives going on in those areas. But when you have two areas which have been identified as ‘left behind’ like this you have to do something about it.
“We’re planning to find out what the issues are and I have met with Councillor Dennis Meredith recently to hear about the problems in Talavera. Next week I will be visiting the area with some other cabinet members to look around with Cllr Meredith and see the issues for myself.”
Several cabinet members did go out and meet Cllr Meredith in Talavera but he says since then nothing has happened.
Nunn also spoke a lot about the authority’s planned anti-poverty strategy and how he hoped this would improve the lives of people living in more deprived parts of the county. The strategy was published this week and while it has a lot of detail about the definition and causes of poverty and is packed with data there is far less about how the problem will actually be tackled. The document also does not mention the ‘left behind’ areas once.
The strategy identifies three priorities: supporting people who are struggling in poverty now; preventing people from falling into poverty in the first place and influencing the government and other national organisations to get a better deal for the communities in West Northants. The document then sets out a number of ‘commitments’ to help this happen.
The authority also says that it will engage with people with lived experience of poverty through a ‘Poverty Truth Commission’.
During the time NN Journal has spent in the five ‘left behind’ areas, the one thing that has been clear to us is that the communities know better than anyone else the issues they face and have plenty of ideas and opinions about how to tackle them. They want a voice but feel that they are repeatedly ignored.
The West Northants’ strategy has been co-produced with an Oversight Strategy Development Group made up of cross-party councillors, service providers, public health, housing, and voluntary and community representatives, including the VCSE Assembly and the Poverty Truth Commission.
While the role of the voluntary sector and other agencies is vital in these areas they should not be seen to speak for the people living there - the residents should be front and centre of any discussions about their lives. Surveys, research and reports are all important but they are no substitute for the stories that senior councillors and officers would hear by spending real time in these areas as is happening in the North.
The anti-poverty strategy is a positive step but real change will take firm action, not just good words.
A WNC spokesperson said: “In addition to the data, we recognised that it was important to listen and learn from the lived experiences of people in poverty and that we engage with those with first-hand knowledge. To inform the development of the strategy we have sought evidence from local voluntary and community organisations, along with key front-line services who are directly supporting West Northants most vulnerable people.
“The strategy will be kept under regular review as new evidence and learning emerges from the impact of the pandemic and we continue to be informed by the findings of the West Northants Poverty Truth Commission.
“A website has been set up for the Poverty Truth Commission in West Northants poverty-truth.org.uk which is encouraging real life stories, from those with lived experienced of poverty. These case studies are coming from seldom heard groups within our communities, those that are vulnerable and those most in need.
“The engagement and activity that is driven through the Poverty Truth Commission has helped to define what poverty means in West Northamptonshire, develop the strategic objectives and commitments, and will continue to influence the actions that will underpin the strategy
“The close involvement of our communities in shaping our approach will ensure that we are meeting the differing needs in all the communities of West Northamptonshire to ensure those who experience poverty first-hand remain at the heart of what we do.”
You can read the strategy in full here: https://westnorthants.moderngov.co.uk/documents/g298/Public%20reports%20pack%2012th-Apr-2022%2018.00%20Cabinet.pdf?T=10