On a mission to level up
The councillor leading the quest to help North Northamptonshire’s left behind communities
By Sarah Ward
Zoe McGhee was first elected as a Labour councillor in May last year, one of the 78 elected to the new North Northamptonshire Council.
Just three weeks after her election, Rayon Pennycock, 16, was murdered in the ‘left behind’ Hazel Leys ward in Corby that she represents, killed by a knife wielded by another Corby teenager.
That summer, in the wake of Rayon’s death, Zoe, 24, delivered a barnstorming speech at a full council meeting, citing the dangers that young people are facing, particularly with regards to knife crime and called on the authority to come up with a plan on how the three left behind areas in Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough could ‘level up’.
Her motion suggested that the plan should address long standing societal problems such as health inequalities, crime and housing and set deliverable targets in order to make the areas better for residents.
The authority agreed it was a priority issue and its scrutiny commission set up a sub committee, chaired by Cllr McGhee, with the remit to work with the communities to devise a plan on how to improve life for residents.
Since then her cross-party committee has held a series of community meetings across the three left behind areas in North Northants Kingswood and Hazel Leys, Queensway in Wellingborough and Avondale Grange in Kettering - and has gathered together senior figures from across the local authority and other public agencies to discuss the issues and start to come up with some solutions.
At the latest meeting there was talk of putting together a funding bid to the government for money from the Levelling Up Fund - which could be as much as £60m for the area.
The work is now ongoing by council officers to put together an overarching bid and community groups are being invited to submit their proposals.
For Cllr McGhee, she wants to see any successful bid bring new resources and initiatives into the left behind areas and to focus on the young people who live there and who often find life a struggle.
She said: “My perspective started with the young people. I would love to see an influx of youth workers; I’d love to see youth workers working with police to break down barriers and get to young people - that’s what I’d really love to see. I’d love to see schools working with community groups and making those community groups bigger. There are so many groups that I’ve met along the way. But we need to make them official and connected and bigger than what it is and push it forward and get everybody behind it.”
There is no doubt that she has put the left behind areas and the need to ‘level them up’ onto the agenda in the north of the county.
“It has been taken on,” she says.
“ For me I feel like the biggest victory is that everyone is now talking about it and I think levelling up could have really slid under the carpet if we hadn’t all stood up and made a noise about it. The thing I see as the biggest victory is people are now wanting to be held accountable for what levelling up is and what we can do about it.
“For a long time these areas have not had the full force of the council and the council’s resources behind them, but this has brought to light so many passionate people who really want to help and we are all sitting round a table which is the best start you can get.”
“Another thing that people try and catch me out on is they say there are other areas, not just in Corby, which are on the edge of being left behind themselves, and that’s true but you’ve got to start somewhere.
“What we learn from this project (if we do it right and if we pull all these officers and resources together) we can roll out - but it has to start somewhere.”
Whether she can succeed in her levelling up mission remains to be seen, as the report of her sub committee will have to first be endorsed by the authority’s scrutiny commission and then any recommendations will need to be taken on by the Conservative led administration led by Cllr Jason Smithers. In an environment often drawn on political party lines, that may be a large task, as pet projects of opposition councillors can often be voted against.
“I’ve not had a personal conversation with Jason about it,” she says “but he has been very vocal about wanting to help. He attended the walk in Kingswood where there were commitments made, not just by him but by MP Tom Pursglove and I hope they are held accountable for those commitments.
“I think I have to be hopeful, I have to be positive and push through. I’m trying my best to build relationships with everybody and what I’m also trying to do is get informal outcomes from this. So not everything has to be put through the executive and full council.
“If I get loads of people together in a meeting like we saw - the DWP (department for work and pensions) got together with David Watts (the council’s director of communities) and they have now committed to doing job fairs in left behind areas. That’s got nothing to do with the exec and the full council, that’s just a separate outcome that we’ve had along the way.”
Her committee is due to give its report to the authority in the next couple of months and then the work should begin. But Cllr McGhee is aware that a long term effort involving many different agencies and local residents will need to be put in to make a change.
“I’m not naive to the fact all these challenges and the issues that we are talking about are going to be solved in six-eight months. But I’m hopeful and I’m looking forward to the fact that we may either be able to keep our work going, in the same format or a different format. But I think regardless of the outcomes of this committee, this is not going to end for me.
“Being a councillor is what you make of it. The thing I love is that every two weeks I have a meeting with the Kingswood youth workers and that’s my favourite thing because that’s when I get to the heart of what it actually is and I get to speak to people who are doing what levelling up is, before levelling up was even a thing.”
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