Chapter 2

Supporting the place-based regeneration revolution

It should not have taken a global pandemic to force local government to embrace smarter, flexible and home-based working. But now it has, the next step is to move away from command-and-control ‘quick fix’ innovations to supporting and enabling genuine place-based regeneration.

Public sector workers have long appreciated the benefits to service delivery that flexible working provides. In the late 1970s, local authorities and public sector organisations began to experiment with new ways of working beyond the traditional office set-up. However, the practice was never universally adopted or extended.

That it took a global pandemic for smarter, flexible and home-based working to be proven more efficient and effective is at best frustrating and at worst negligent, given the many and growing demands that local, place-based public services face while squeezed by ever-tightening levels of funding and resources.

Parallels can be drawn from this example of recent history with today’s challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Solutions are found within the place, where its people know what’s best, whether that is a local authority or in the community it serves.

Given the freedom, a place with all its constituent parts can act quickly to do things differently and more effectively compared with a nationwide approach. The necessity of applying this practically gained wisdom to meet the challenges that people, communities and places face is nothing new.

Socitm’s 2,500-plus members do not need to be told that place-based recovery is the way forward. And, as data and technologies permeate everything that we do, increasingly they are at the forefront of co-designing and co-delivering place-based approaches to achieve better outcomes with local communities.

Why has there been reticence to adopt this approach if the benefits are well recognised and apparent for all to see? Localities are frustrated by centralised control that imposes a range of bureaucratic funding regimes. Typically, these seek to impose an ideological ‘quick fix innovation’ approach that is inadequate and inappropriately matched with the diverse needs and realities of local communities.

As we have seen recently, top-down command and control approaches have time and again failed the Covid-19 ‘stress test’. As a result, the true value of a local authority-led, place-based approach has come into sharper focus.

Not only has the pandemic impacted directly on the health and wellbeing of people and places, it has also imposed unprecedented shocks on the wider civil society and social-economic life of people and their communities as a whole.

As a consequence, the pandemic has forced local authorities to change the way they work to address the pressing challenges being faced by their communities. Whether it is developing effective local test and trace systems, identifying and supporting the vulnerable, or undertaking data analysis to fill the gaps in knowledge about specific localities and communities, local public service leaders have been asked to rethink the ‘art of the possible’ in relation to where and how they should harness technologies and data to achieve better outcomes for their residents, businesses and communities.

As Sarah Longlands, the new chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, has noted, in the face of “huge centralism, huge uncertainty and huge inertia” local authorities are taking a “just get on with it” approach in providing pragmatic and effective community leadership.

Exasperation with failures in the national Covid-19 response has helped drive local collaboration, as highlighted in Socitm’s recent place-based recovery prospectus and digital equalities policy briefing*. Indeed, the effectiveness of local collaboration has been visibly demonstrated by the outstanding success of place-based inter-agency cooperation underpinning the vaccination rollout, with local authorities and the wider local public and voluntary sectors working together both at the frontline and coordinating the wider logistical operation behind the scenes.

Socitm’s unique insights from working with local leaders, policy-makers, partners and practitioners have enabled us to capture the emerging picture. Drawn from more than 200 local authority recovery and regeneration strategies, this shows how local authorities are developing the means by which they move from a frontline response, via local post-Covid recovery initiatives, towards community-focused regeneration. Within the prospectus, we have identified four common ‘pillars’ – reset, reform, renew and resilient – that characterise place-based recovery and regeneration approaches across the various tiers of local government.

However, for civil society to flourish going forward, places need to increasingly focus on supporting wider community regeneration through the lens of ethical change. The requirement for ethical design and use of emerging technologies and data has assumed even greater relevance in preparation for the societal and environmental challenges and implications that lie ahead.

"We need to be creating viable local models to enable structural and operational place-based regeneration that will allow us to identify what works"

Nadira Hussain Director of leadership development and research, Socitm

As our recent Regeneration through ethical change infographic also illustrates, we are seeing an emerging regeneration-focused ‘Velvet Revolution’ under way across local authorities**. This approach aligns with what Chris Naylor, chief executive of Barking & Dagenham LBC, has described as the place-based building regenerative capacity that is shifting from a needs-led approach to public services to one that works with people before they get into crisis; a prevention rather than cure philosophy. It focuses on building trust through local public services design and delivery and through community participation and engagement.

Local government is at a crossroads. The innovation and creativity that is being released as a direct result of this regeneration-focused revolution needs to be supported and nurtured in step with what is very much our ethos at Socitm of ‘simplify, standardise, share, and sustain’. But more needs to be done, both centrally and locally.

The significance of place-based approaches is reflected in the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government’s work in support of local digital collaboration and its new £5m ‘partnerships for people and place’ programme. It is also alluded to in the prime minister’s wider levelling-up and ‘build back better’ campaigns.

However, we need to look beyond the government’s rhetoric and develop truly collaborative place-based approaches that local authorities and local anchor institutions, such as health authorities and universities together with community and third sector bodies, can provide. We need to be creating viable local models to enable structural and operational place-based regeneration that will allow us to identify what works; what can be readily implemented and scaled-up without the need to go through time-wasting competitive bidding or ‘beauty contest’-style negotiations.

Using this rationale, the challenge then is to move the conversation and practice to implementing what works: identifying what needs to change and how can we respond at pace, both nationally and locally? In support of this, our research activity is focused on capturing the emerging lessons from ethical, digital place-making, based on the adoption of the doughnut economics model and more than 200 local recovery, resilience and regeneration strategies and plans***.

This is complemented by our wider work with research partners such as Bradford University’s senior leaders’ apprenticeship programme, the Institute of Government and Public Policy established by the University of East London and St George’s House, Windsor.

Our key next step is to form a president’s commission that will comprise the Socitm presidential team, partners and leadership programme alumni working together to help steer our post-Covid recovery and regeneration programme.

It is anticipated this programme will provide a valuable collection of resources to connect people and places and benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience. Our ultimate goal is to support the regeneration of healthy and well communities through the creation of resilient, sustainable, socially just and ecologically safe places in which people and communities can thrive.

We aim to be instrumental in the movement to shift local government from command-and-control ‘quick fix’ innovations to supporting and enabling the emerging place-based regeneration-focused Velvet Revolution, which like its earlier namesakes, is seeking to address the wider needs of civil society.

Fulfilling our ambition will enable our public services both central and local to be agile, operationally sustainable, and to have the necessary leadership skills to successfully navigate the challenges of the post-Covid world.

- Nadira Hussain is leadership development and research director at Socitm.


* ‘Socitm’s post-Covid recovery prospectus’,

** ‘Regeneration through ethical change’, Socitm

*** ‘What on earth is the doughnut?’, Kate Raworth,