Residents of a County Durham ‘left behind’ neighbourhood say local communities should be trusted with more key decision-making and funding if levelling up is to succeed.

They have backed a plea from a cross-party group of MPs, who warn the government has struggled to make a difference in ‘left behind’ areas - communities which are disadvantaged by high levels of deprivation and low levels of investment and resources.   

In Bishop Auckland, an area with 35 per cent of children living in poverty compared to the national average of 20 per cent, local organisations say current funding models are not helping those most in need. 

The area also experiences higher levels of violent crime and more than double the national average of anti-social behaviour incidents. 

Darlington and Stockton Times: Alan Armstrong and Barbara Slasor work with residents in Bishop Auckland through the Gaunless Gateway Big Local Alan Armstrong and Barbara Slasor work with residents in Bishop Auckland through the Gaunless Gateway Big Local (Image: Stuart Boulton)

But despite the worrying figures, a host of resident-led partnerships have collaborated to deliver improvements to local social infrastructure, supported residents into employment and improved overall community cohesion. 

The Gaunless Gateway Big Local partnership has also helped set up initiatives involving the creative arts, a table tennis club, employment workshops and support to a crisis and welfare service. 

There’s also been a focus on meeting gaps in existing youth provision and tackling the anti-social behaviour problem by liaising with the local authorities to expand the activities on offer to young people through the West Auckland Youth Initiative. 

Barbara Slasor, Community Development Lead at the partnership, said the success is down to resident-led decision making and local voices taking priority. While the approach is different compared to traditional methods of decision making, its proved pivotal in ensuring funding is distributed appropriately and fairly. 

“There’s a lot of community conversation and listening without any judgement or assumptions to ensure funding goes to the right places,” Ms Slasor said. “The most successful projects I’ve worked on have involved people with lived experiences.”

Other successful projects include reviving a disused building in Henknowle to create a centre of social enterprise. Young people with autism and other learning disabilities are also being supported through the ‘Bridge Creative’ enterprise hub. 

The 16 ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods in County Durham are mainly concentrated in the region’s former mining and industrial areas, but people are keen to shake off the stigma.

Alan Armstrong, chairman of Gaunless Gateway, said: “Calling them ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods makes them sound like forgotten places but they’re not, there’s some really good people and ideas - they just need a helping hand and to be listened to.”

The pair have been praised for improving lives in the community. 

Darlington and Stockton Times: Gaunless Gateway is based at the Auckland Youth and Community Centre Gaunless Gateway is based at the Auckland Youth and Community Centre (Image: Stuart Boulton)

A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods says powers, responsibilities and accountabilities are too concentrated in Westminster and Whitehall and funding doesn’t always benefit those most in need. There’s also criticism for the “short-term, bureaucratic, and inflexible” funding system.

Barbara Slasor added: “We must ensure the most deprived neighbourhoods receive the support they require, with power, resources, and trust placed in their hands.

“With my involvement in Bishop Auckland, I can personally attest that consistent investment holds the potential for substantial transformation. It’s imperative that communities have a say in local decisions, services, and facilities to bring about genuine change. It’s high time to empower residents to shape their own future.” 

Paul Howell, Sedgefield Conservative MP and co-chair of the APPG, called for reform to the levelling up agenda. 

He said: “Without corrective action, levelling up will not make a difference in the areas that need it most. We are at a crucial moment for the most challenged neighbourhoods, and decisions made in the next few years will define their prospects for decades to come. 

“Decisive action is now urgently needed to save the levelling up agenda from the strategic drift which threatens to waste the significant political will which has been generated in recent years.”