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Neighbourhoods and communities
Deep poverty and destitution

Focusing on doubly-disadvantaged neighbourhoods

Neighbourhood-based, resident-led action holds out a transformative promise, which has never been more needed.

Written by:
Margaret Bolton and Millie Dessent
Date published:
Reading time:
5 minutes

Hardship in neighbourhoods is frequently discussed in solely financial terms. But what often leads communities to feel ignored or ‘left behind’ is their social, as much as their economic, circumstances. Deprivation has combined with a depletion of social infrastructure - the hollowing out of community places and spaces, civic and associated activity, as well as physical and digital connectedness with the world beyond - to leave a group of neighbourhoods not only ‘left behind’ but also ill-equipped to catch up.

These communities need to have access to resources and support to make the most of local capacities and assets, and to develop their networks. Otherwise, as things stand, amid the many deepening pressures this in recent years, their prospects will only worsen.


Social infrastructure is in decline, with the poorest places at the sharp end

The loss of community centres, residents’ associations, and neighbourhood cafes and shops, contributes to a widening tear in the fabric of our shared social and civic life. These are the places where we connect, foster relationships, and build the necessary foundations on which people can stand, as they mobilise for change. 

The data here is striking: over 760 youth clubs have shut since 2012, a quarter of libraries have been lost since 2005, and people are much less likely to volunteer or attend community activities than they were ten years ago (YMCA, 2020; Onward, 2020). All this is felt with greatest force in our poorest neighbourhoods – often the very same communities which lack alternative community facilities (Local Trust, 2019).

A double disadvantage

The 225 doubly-disadvantaged neighbourhoods with both the highest levels of deprivation and the lowest levels of social infrastructure in England are faring noticeably worse than other places, which have equally high levels of deprivation, but where a base level of social infrastructure has been retained (OCSI, 2020). People living in these doubly-disadvantaged ‘left-behind’ areas witness, for example, educational attainment that is significantly lower across every age group than their counterparts in similarly deprived but less-isolated places. They also endure markedly worse health outcomes, and have fewer employment opportunities (OCSI, 2020).

It’s not that the residents of these neighbourhoods lack the skills, commitment or rich heritage to turn things around themselves. These are often neighbourhoods with a strong sense of belonging and identity; locals are often painfully aware of the untapped potential that exists. The real deficit lies in the support that these areas have access to. 

Local authorities containing ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods receive less core government funding per household than the average across England (OCSI, 2022). Charitable grant funding is also lower: ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods received £7.77 per head between 2004 and 2021, compared with an English average of £12.23.1 By contrast, other deprived areas that do have social infrastructure exceed that national figure, with an average of £19.31 in those places (OCSI, 2022) – a sign, perhaps, of just how important it is to have local organisations and individuals around who can fill in the application forms, work shoulder-to-shoulder with residents to demonstrate their neighbourhoods’ needs, and implement plans that spark genuine and sustained change.

Shifting the dial

Improving outcomes requires a radical rethink. First, that investment must be prioritised according to need, with the past imbalance in support for ‘left behind’ areas redressed. Focusing solely on towns and high streets will not be sufficient. Such investment tends to ‘stick’ to the centre and fails to benefit the neighbourhoods where hardship is most concentrated, often those located in disconnected suburbs and peripheral estates. 

Second, we need a new approach to how funding is delivered. One that trusts local residents to know what is best for their areas, giving them the power over local decisions and a budget, together with the confidence and capacity-building support to implement them. It is time to draw a line under top-down approaches and the competitive funding pots which precisely those neighbourhoods in greatest need will struggle to access: they are rarely best-placed to organise a winning entry to the ‘beauty contest’.

Some may argue that it is unrealistic to expect struggling communities to mobilise to improve their own neighbourhoods. However, evidence from an evaluation of the Big Local programme, which awarded just over £1 million each to 150 neighbourhoods that had missed out on funding and opportunities in the past, revealed a huge appetite amongst people in hard-pressed places to drive change, and a conviction that, when given the opportunity, communities are able to improve their outcomes and make their neighbourhoods better places to live, work and grow up in (TSRC, 2022).

Community wealth funds: support for neighbourhoods that need it most

While people can and will mobilise, it is crucial that they are given support to do so. The establishment of community wealth funds, announced by Government in 2023, could, if they’re pursued with enough scale and ambition, have the potential to put residents in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods in control of building or reviving their social infrastructure. Long-term investment that is patient, with appropriate support to develop local assets, networks and capacity, would give communities a real opportunity to plan for the future, to improve their areas and their quality of life. 

The initial proposal was based on evidence gathered during the evaluation of the Big Local programme as well as wider research showing that community -led activity to design out the most severe hardship can boost employment opportunities, incomes, housing quality and, most strikingly, improve health and wellbeing (TSRC, 2022; New Local, 2021; Marmot et al., 2021).

Evaluations of Big Local and past neighbourhood regeneration programmes tell us that for positive impacts to be felt by people in a place, community wealth funds must be hyper-local and focused on the neighbourhoods that need the funding most. 

Neighbourhood-based, resident-led action holds out a transformative promise, bringing together the economic and social power that lies latent in overlooked and under-funded communities. It has never been more needed. 


  1. This figure is the cumulative charitable grant amount received by the 225 neighbourhoods in this period which were submitted to 360 Giving and which were provided by funders with a full national remit.

About the authors

Margaret Bolton is Director of Policy, Communications and Research at Local Trust.

Millie Dessent is Policy Officer at Local Trust.

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