Sharon Hodgson – 2022 Speech on Dormant Assets Funding and Community Wealth Funds

The speech made by Sharon Hodgson, the Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, in Westminster Hall, the House of Common, on 6 December 2022.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) on securing this important debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss the next wave of dormant assets and the possibility of establishing a community wealth fund.

I am proud that in 2008 the Labour Government passed meaningful dormant assets legislation, which began to unlock this crucial source of funding from financial assets such as bank accounts. Although it is important to reiterate that the priority is trying to reunite assets with their owners, where that is not possible the money goes to causes that facilitate real change in our communities. This policy raised over £800 million of funding to support social and environmental causes across the UK, so I am proud of the work that parliamentarians across the House, including many members of the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, have carried out. I am pleased that this proposal, in particular the creation of the community wealth fund, is being considered by the Government. However, it is important that this matter is not just considered; it must actually amount to meaningful change.

In England, funding from dormant assets is restricted to youth work, financial inclusion and social investment. It would be good to see that expanded so that the money could be used to finance a wider range of community projects. The design of the proposed community wealth fund has been informed by the success of the Big Local programme. The 2020 evaluation of the programme found that

“The concept of putting residents at the very heart of that change is showing its value up and down the country.”

A community-led approach means that local priorities and desired outcomes would be determined at local level by the people who live there. The importance of that cannot be overstated.

I want to use this opportunity to highlight the important research conducted by the Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion, in collaboration with the APPG, which identified 225 left-behind neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods face significant deprivation, as we heard from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, as well as poor connectivity and lower levels of community engagement and activity. That is especially poignant to me as the neighbourhoods identified include St Anne’s and the Washington North ward in my constituency. For example, in St Anne’s, there are only 25% of registered charities per 1,000 people compared with the English average.

Away from these statistics, I know at first hand the difference a community wealth fund would make in Washington and Sunderland West. This funding pot, which is now estimated to be £880 million, would be transformative in building community confidence and provide the foundations to enable the residents of the most left-behind neighbourhoods to bolster their social infrastructure. Consistent with this, the wards most in need of investment would receive awards, as opposed to having to compete for funding. That would be the right approach. Bids for levelling-up funding and freeports have pitted the poorest in our society against each other, rather than focusing on those in greatest need.

A number of hon. Members in the Chamber were at a meeting of the APPG just last week. I have co-chaired a couple of the meetings of the APPG’s inquiry into levelling up, in which we heard about the power of local communities to take action to improve outcomes for local people, for instance through award-winning community mental health programmes for young people, or through support to strengthen the local economy and support jobs and businesses. Levelling up seems to be cosmetic: if we move people from the bottom rung to the second rung from bottom, we can claim to have succeeded. Labour wants equal opportunity for every part of the country. The APPG inquiry shows that communities can develop themselves despite Whitehall neglect, so imagine what communities like mine could achieve with access to the appropriate resources and long-term support under a Labour Government.

That is why the community wealth fund is vital. I hope that the Government appreciate its importance, and that the community wealth fund will be one of the beneficiaries of the next wave of dormant assets.