New series: Levelling Up

Today we are launching a new series as we begin a year long project to give a voice to residents living in our 'left behind communities'

By Sarah Ward and Natalie Bloomer

Levelling up is the new government buzzword but what does it mean in reality? It was hoped that Boris Johnson would use his recent big speech on the issue to set out his plans in more detail but despite lots of rhetoric there was little in the way of policy ideas.

He said he wants to rebalance the UK economy and highlighted differences in life expectancy, education attainment and other inequalities between different areas. But there wasn’t much about how this would be tackled. Instead he encouraged local leaders to come forward with ideas of how to improve their areas.

At NN Journal we think that idea could be taken a step further. Rather than relying on local politicians to provide the answers, we think residents living in areas that have been neglected and forgotten about for so long should lead the conversation. 

So today we are launching a new year-long series called Levelling Up. We will work with the local communities of five Northamptonshire wards which have been identified by the government as being ‘left behind’ to find out the problems they face and hear what they think could be done to improve things.

The areas are:

  • Kingswood and Hazel Leys in Corby

  • Queensway in Wellingborough

  • Avondale Grange in Kettering

  • Kings Heath in Northampton

  • Talavera in Northampton

In our initial conversations with local people, we’ve heard repeatedly how they feel ignored. We want to change that. In a different type of journalism from the norm, we want residents of these areas to guide our reporting on the issues that matter to them.

We will hold open newsrooms in the heart of these wards so that residents can be part of our decision making in what stories we cover and how. We don’t think it’s enough to simply identify problems, we want residents to tell us how they think things can be improved. This will allow our journalism on the subject to be both community-led and solutions focused. 

We’ll also be drilling down into the data that has marked out these five areas as ‘left behind’ and showing the real life stories and experiences behind the numbers. We’ll look at how the decade of austerity coupled with the withdrawal of many vital public services after the collapse of Northamptonshire County Council has impacted these communities.

Deprivation and the level of need in these areas is high. For years they’ve been spoken about as ‘problem areas’ but little seems to change.

At a meeting of the full North Northamptonshire Council last night Labour councillors Zoe McGhee and Anne Lee (who represent two of the five left behind areas) called for the authority to come up with a plan within the next six months of how the areas can ‘level up’. The ruling conservative administration removed the time scale but agreed to put the matter before the authority’s scrutiny committee.

Cllr Lee told NN Journal:

“It was no surprise to me, due to the large amount of case work I already have, that Avondale Grange was named as one of the five ‘left behind wards of Northamptonshire’. 

“Years of underfunding for youth clubs, childcare services and family support have meant poorer areas with lower-skilled workers are really struggling. The social mobility gap between the better-off areas and more deprived areas is widening. It has largely been left to community groups and volunteers to support the community. 

“I am calling for a ‘State of Northamptonshire’ report, to investigate how the five most deprived areas in Northamptonshire, three of which are in North Northamptonshire, can best be supported by the new Council. If nothing is done, the most deprived communities will continue to pay the price for the financial mistakes made by the previous administration.”    

Cllr McGhee was elected as unitary councillor for the Kingswood and Hazel Leys ward in May.

She said:

“The left behind report has brought attention to issues that our communities have been facing for many years up till now. When I met with a resident from Hazel Leys we discussed key issues: unlawful HMO’s, limited youth services and youth violence. For me a huge importance is young people, I want children and young people to have their voices heard in the levelling agenda.” 

Resident of Hazel Leys Annie Driver, who has lived in the area since 1997 says crime is worse now than it ever was and there appears to be an apathy among the police and public services. The community has, she says, been forgotten.

“I heard someone recently describe it as ‘no man’s land’ and that’s right”, she told NN Journal.

“Everybody knows everybody and it is a proper community area, but the pandemic has shown up a lot of gaps. When we needed to reach out, we couldn’t. Who do you go to?

“Crime levels are now terrifying and it is more threatening now. When you used to hear a disturbance in the street, you’d look out to see what was going on. But we don’t look out anymore, because it is such a regular occurrence. 

“What we need first of all is to be listened to. We need to have a voice as a community. We need some attention - not just lip service.”

Conservative councillor King Lawal is the newly elected councillor for Queesway.

He said: “I am not blind to the work that needs to be done to ‘level up’ for the residents of this ward. That is why I work tirelessly every day to achieve the socio-economic betterment, that I know my residents want and need. Even more so as the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and accelerated the issues residents endure. In Queensway there is the matter of substandard living, even overcrowding in some dwellings. In my view, it’s clear that this has a direct link to health outcomes, and inequality. Likewise, the problem of anti-social behaviour is linked to educational attainment and youth unemployment. 

“What we must do now is work with our communities and partners to propose an approach on the way forward on how we can level up as per the governments levelling up agenda, one that is comprehensive and practicable.” 

Lib Dem councillor for Talavera Dennis Meredith says he will be calling on West Northamptonshire Council to invest heavily in the area.

“I’ve asked for a meeting with the leader of the council and I’ll be telling him that we need £3 - £4million put into Talavera,” he told NN Journal.

“I also want a cross-party committee set up to look at what needs to be done. This government report identifying Talavera and other wards in the county as left behind should be a wake up call. We need action.”

Councillor for Kings Heath Terri Eales said the council needs to work with local people to tackle the problems faced.

“In March a 14 year-old-boy was caught with a machete and in May, two teenage boys were arrested after a man was stabbed in Kings Heath. 

“We need to work with the police and other voluntary organisations to look at the root cause of youths carrying weapons. More funding needs to go to ensuring that there are things to do for young people. If a family is struggling to afford food they are not going to be able to pay for their children to do extra activities. 

“As an authority we also need to take social overcrowding seriously, including the potential impact on mental health and support people onto the housing list before things become a massive problem. And we need a decent food poverty strategy. I’m aware of a lot of work that has already been undertaken by the previous Borough Council but this needs to be picked up and developed as soon as possible.”

With ‘levelling up’ and ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods high on the political agenda right now there has perhaps never been a better time for local residents to speak up about what they need and the changes they want to see in their areas. 

At NN Journal we hope we can provide a platform for their demands and their ideas for change.