England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Let’s ground levelling up

Photo by Eva Dang on Unsplash

What’s in a name? There was widespread surprise and some anger in local government to find itself dropped from the title of the newly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Perhaps we shouldn’t get too hung up on this. It’s not the first time after all that ‘local government’ has failed to feature in the department’s name. At the same time, it is hard to take it as a ringing endorsement of the centrality of the Government’s plans for levelling up.

But what exactly are those plans? Two years into the Johnson administration, its signature domestic policy still lacks definition.

Is it only about regional disparities or does it aim to address inequalities within regions? Is it just about the economy – and, if so, is it solely focused on infrastructure projects – or does it address broader wellbeing outcomes? How will it be measured and what will success look like?

Readers of this magazine will be particularly keen to know what the role of local government is in all this.

As I have argued before in this column, there has been a centralising tendency to the fund-based programmes we have seen so far, which cannot be the best way to level up for the long-term.

Could that be about to change? The new ministerial team is notably heavyweight. Michael Gove’s reforms have divided opinion in the past but nobody doubts his ability to get things done and to engage with big ideas. The same can be said of Andy Haldane in the Cabinet office heading the Levelling Up Task Force.

As the new team prepares the long-awaited White Paper, at the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU), we have been setting out the core principles which need to inform the approach to levelling up from now on. They are:

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

Partnership: Local 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.

Transparency: There 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.

Scope: New levelling up funding and other funding related to it and local growth strategies, such as the Towns and UK Shared Prosperity funds must include social infrastructure and measures that address inequalities in areas such as health and skills, with support for preventative measures such as early years programmes and childcare services.

Flexibility: Levelling 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.

Accountability: The 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.

If levelling up is grounded in these six core principles, it has the potential to offer real transformation. After all, we know that there exist within the UK significant inequalities of health, wealth and life chances – so the prize is worth fighting for. But true levelling up must engage local government and must be aligned to further devolution.

Whether it features in the name of the department or not, local government is real: there are 398 councils across the UK with more than two million staff, democratically hard-wired into every community in the country through more than 20,000 elected councillors. If levelling up is to be more than just a slogan, that’s where it will be delivered.

Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of LGIU. This article was first published by the Municipal Journal.

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