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Paul Howell: Left behind communities must be the priority as the Government plots a recovery from the Covid pandemic

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Paul Howell MP for Sedgefield & co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

Since I was elected in December 2019, the world has become a very different place. As I entered office, I pledged to support the Government’s “levelling up” agenda but I feel it’s now more important than ever, as the pandemic has tended to hit communities which were already struggling the hardest.

In my role as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, I’ve seen data and heard stories demonstrating the numerous difficulties these neighbourhoods face over the past year.

Most recently, we looked at the difference good transport connectivity can make, an issue I’m familiar with from my own constituency and the efforts I have made alongside local people to secure investment to reopen a local railway station. I know public transport can mean the difference between access to employment opportunities or unemployment, and in some cases a lack of access to life-saving services.

The APPG’s latest report, Connecting communities: improving transport to get ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods back on track produced by Campaign for Better Transport draws on the latest research and data. It highlights how people living in “left behind” areas, which are predominantly in post-industrial and coastal areas in the North and the Midlands on the edge of towns and cities, suffer from the highest levels of economic deprivation.

They also have low levels of physical connectivity – 84 per cent of “left behind” neighbourhoods have worse connectivity than the average across England. Many are more reliant on public transport as 40 per cent of households have no car, compared to 26 per cent which is the national average.

The report also examines the impact of the 1960s Beeching cuts to the railway system and found that 50 per cent of all rail stations in “left behind” neighbourhoods were closed following the landmark report, while 74 per cent have no rail station at all now compared to 60 per cent pre-1960s.

I’m grateful that in my constituency of Sedgefield, Ferryhill station has been awarded government funding to help restore it. Once re-opened the station will provide a link for local people to nearby towns and cities, making opportunities slightly further afield more accessible.

The re-opening of this station is a comparatively low-cost project but will open the North’s railways system to many who need it.

Ferryhill is one of 15 rail schemes awarded up to £50,000 to accelerate plans that could restore lines and stations to communities, but for many people across the country there is still a dire need for better rail and bus links to connect them to essential services.

225 “left behind” neighbourhoods in England not only rank within the top 10 per cent of places on the Index of Multiple Deprivation, but also within the same percentile of the Community Needs Index (CNI). The CNI considers the provision of places to meet, the presence of an active and engaged community and how connected a place is, both in terms of digital connectivity and transport provision. The combination of these factors leaves “left behind” neighbourhoods in a vulnerable place, with little opportunity or resources to improve their own outcomes.

However, what we have also seen demonstrated through evidence given at the APPG for “left behind” neighbourhoods is that when deprived places receive targeted, hyper-local funding, these opportunities don’t seem so unattainable. Where there are places to meet, and spaces for people to form connections and ideas, and identify funding to help get projects off the ground, residents can make a huge difference, because it is local people who know what is best for their area.

In terms of transport, local funding could lead to support for a community minibus to help those who are less mobile get to the town centre or to a hospital appointment, or it might help to create a community-led transport strategy for discussion with their local authority. What is important is that residents have the opportunity to determine their own needs and access services that meet them and it’s because of this that it is investment in both people and places that will deliver the best outcomes in the long-term for residents of “left behind” neighbourhoods.

I’m pleased to see the Government’s Bus Back Better strategy’s pledge to invest in local authorities to help them deliver better local bus provision, as well as a mention of community consultation. It seems like this foundational investment in our country’s buses will be a brilliant start to reconnecting some of our most “left behind” neighbourhoods.

But, if we are to achieve long-term lasting change in these places, we must also build capacity and confidence within communities, so they are able to advocate for their needs, as well as investment in the vital social infrastructure they rely upon.

As we hopefully leave the most immediate effects of the pandemic behind us, the longer-term repercussions will undoubtedly be felt for some time. It is critical that we not only stimulate the UK economy, but also prioritise the important process of levelling up to ensure communities which have already suffered for so long do not fall even further behind.

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