England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

A reset for levelling up

Levelling up has been this government’s signature policy. It has been emphasised repeatedly by the Prime Minister and in ministerial speeches across government. It is central to the government’s mission but its exact meaning has remained unclear. Is that about to change?

Last week’s reshuffle represents something of a reset. Michael Gove has been moved to the newly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities with a ministerial team including Neil O’Brien, Kemi Badenoch and Danny Kruger. At the same time, Andy Haldane, former Bank of England Chief Economist, has been diverted from his new role as Chief Executive of the RSA to spend six months heading up the Cabinet Office’s Levelling Up Taskforce.

This is a formidable team. Mr Gove brings a reputation from his time heading up education, the Ministry of Justice and DEFRA for getting things done and not being afraid of big reforms, even when these prove divisive. Kruger and O’Brien have both written thoughtfully about these issues, and Haldane has been a keen advocate of “community capitalism”.

So we can expect big ideas and action. At the very least, the promised White Paper.

This would come none too soon. Nearly two years into this administration and there are still fundamental questions about what levelling up means. Is it about regional disparities or does it aim to address inequalities within regions? Is it just about the economy – and, if so, is it just about infrastructure projects – or does it address broader wellbeing outcomes? How will it be measured and what will success look like?

Most importantly, from our perspective and that of our members, what will be the role of local government and of local communities in planning and delivering levelling up?

At LGIU, we have argued that effective levelling up can only be delivered in partnership with empowered and empowering councils. But here the mood music looks less positive. Perhaps we shouldn’t get too hung up on the symbolism of “local government” disappearing from the name of the department. It’s not for the first time after all, though it hardly bodes well. More significantly, we have been told that there will be a shift of emphasis away from devolution in the White Paper and the levelling up initiatives we have seen so far have been centrally driven: targeted interventions through the Levelling Up fund, the Towns Fund and the Community Renewal Fund.

This is sub-optimal because channelling everything through centrally-controlled funds fails to build real capacity and keeps places dependent on government patronage. (A point that has recently been made well by Haldane himself).

If we want places to level up, and to stay levelled up, we need real devolution that gives local leaders the incentives and the tools to drive sustained and sustainable growth and to align it with the political identity, needs and aspirations of local areas. That’s how we will achieve a form of levelling up that is transformative, not cyclical.

And there’s a real opportunity for the government here. Whether it’s in the title of the department or not, local government exists: there are 398 councils across the UK with more than two million staff, democratically hardwired into every community in the country through more than 20,000 elected councillors. That’s an essential tool that the government must use. Levelling up can only be achieved by working with councils rather than going around them.

At LGIU, we have been analysing levelling up for two years through a series of briefings and research papers. Next week, we will be bringing these together and, from them, deriving key principles that we believe should inform the forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper, including:

Clarity The White Paper has to clarify what the government means by levelling up whilst allowing for flexibility for locally-targeted action and scope for local leaders to make it their own.

PartnershipLocal leaders have to be given the tools to be able to fully contribute as partners to the levelling up project. Levelling up needs to go hand in hand with a decentralisation of power to local and sub-national governments, based on A New Settlement for Place.

TransparencyThere has to be complete transparency – both in relation to the data and information used for making those decisions and the reasons why policy and funding decisions are made.

ScopeNew levelling up funding and other funding related to it and local growth strategies, such as the Towns and UK Shared Prosperity Funds, should extend beyond investing in hard infrastructure projects to social infrastructure and to measures that address inequalities in areas such as health and skills, with support for preventative measures such as early years programmes and childcare services.

FlexibilityLevelling up has to be and be seen to be relevant to local places, reflecting the priorities of and differences between local authorities, their communities and partners.

AccountabilityThe Levelling Up White Paper needs to set out clear objectives and timescales – at national and disaggregated levels – so that progress can be scrutinised and outcomes measured, including developing metrics for place-based wellbeing policy.

We hope that there can be a productive dialogue between the government and councils about how they can deliver levelling up together. This essential partnership is something that we will help to facilitate at LGIU. The dialogue with our members starts here.

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