The value of community funding in delivering major infrastructure nationwide

8 min read

Whether it’s Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy, David Cameron’s Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine or Tony Blair's Regional Development Agencies, ‘levelling up’ the UK has been an important policy for governments of different stripes. Following Rishi Sunak MP’s appointment as Prime Minister, let’s hope that this new government continues to build on the framework set out in the government’s Levelling Up White Paper – rather than re-invent the wheel once again – and tackles this longstanding issue with the vigour, commitment and significant funding that has been lacking.

As one of the government's 12 levelling up missions, transport and good infrastructure are proven drivers of productivity and economic prosperity. Both the Independent Economic Review of the North and the Midlands attribute a large share of their regional underperformance to poor connectivity and infrastructure. In its Levelling Up White Paper, the government has promised to bring transport services in the regional areas closer to that of London by 2030.

Connectivity is vitally important to any local economy as it enables better access to local services, new markets, and jobs. We know that in the transport industry – but what more can we do to accelerate that connectivity and so better contribute to levelling up? How can we ensure our projects are both successful and leave a positive legacy in the communities we work in? We believe community funds are a key part of the answer.

The opportunities found within community funding

Community funds, grants offered to deliver community-led projects, come in many different forms and possess different uses - ranging from regenerating town centres and creating new parks to providing small grants to local SMEs and charities. These funds often feature as core parts of housing association projects but are relatively rare for large infrastructure projects.

Every scheme we help deliver will ultimately improve the quality of people’s lives. However, we know that despite the broader good, communities are sometimes negatively affected and miss out on the benefits. The widespread use of community funds can help change that, so that even more people can benefit from new infrastructure schemes while also de-risking the consenting process for scheme promoters. Our new modelling shows that if major projects set aside just 0.5% of their overall budgets for smaller-scale community projects and investments it would equate to a pot of over £500m.*

On a regional level, the current pipeline translates into £81m for the South East, £55m for Scotland and the East of England, £142m for the North, nearly £90m for the Midlands, and £23m for Wales. This would contribute significantly to the government's levelling up efforts and secure wider levels of community buy-in.

Making funds work for developers and communities

Community funds - and the process to access them - creates another channel of engagement with local people. That buy-in and dialogue can help schemes to de-risk their consenting approach. Both the Hybrid Bill and Development Consent Order (DCO) processes place a significant emphasis on community and stakeholder engagement.

But while industry has worked hard to implement more community funds over the past few years, we must not lose sight of the fact that there are often holes in the approach.

How do projects and programmes make sure funding gets to the places that need it most? After all, there are risks that under-represented communities, whether through disability, health, ethnicity, background or other groups, miss out on such opportunities.

Tackling this challenge is not ground-breaking; it’s about good engagement. Developers and their suppliers need to invest the time to get under the skin of an area, its needs and its opportunities. One excellent way of doing this is by building a network of community champions. These are a diverse group of people, truly representative of not just an area but also wider society, to make sure all good causes have a voice.

HS2 provides a great example of how to implement community fund schemes successfully. Through its Community and Environment Fund, in combination with the Business and Local Economy Fund, HS2 has provided over £12.4m to communities and organisations affected by HS2 construction works. This includes supporting Gilgal Birmingham fund a Mental Health Support worker to provide specialist support for women, among a variety of other initiatives.

HS2’s schemes are successful because they have clear guidance for applicants on how to apply for such funding, as well as a clear commitment from HS2 leadership so communities can be confident of delivery.

By following the example set by HS2, project promotors are far better able to create legacies for the country, the communities they interact with and their own businesses. The country benefits from increased connectivity through new and improved infrastructure. Local communities can enjoy projects dedicated to their wellbeing, such as new green spaces or facilities. Meanwhile the developers themselves can take advantage of a stronger reputation as an organisation that delivers, securing further work to grow their businesses.

As an industry, we must do better at providing more support and funding for the communities we work in and ensure projects are not ‘done’ to communities but done ‘with’ them.

Structured community funds that ask people what they really need, ensure that a cross-section of society can respond, quickly deliver outcomes and prove tangible benefit early on in a programme’s lifecycle can drive this vision.

Understanding their needs. Providing the right level of support. Leaving a positive legacy.

*Data from the IPA National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline 2021

I want a better perspective on