England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Levelling up transformatively

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In his latest column for The Municipal Journal, Jonathan Carr-West reflects on the recent announcements around levelling up and devolution that have come out of Whitehall, particularly given the implications of this month’s local election results. 

A General Election followed by Brexit, followed by a global pandemic, means that we have seen relatively little of the Government’s domestic agenda.

We know there is a commitment to levelling up, but the development of this in practice has been swamped by the overwhelming need to respond to the pandemic.

This month’s election results, with further Conservative gains in ‘red wall’ seats in the North and the Midlands, reinforces the political logic of targeting those areas. Last week’s Queen’s Speech also gives some indication of what we might expect. But it also highlights some of the fault lines that may develop and some of the questions we need to answer.

There is to be a new levelling up taskforce led by Neil O’Brien MP, staffed by a crack team drawn from across Whitehall. A White Paper is promised. On the face of it, this is good news. Mr O’Brien is a notably thoughtful parliamentarian with a track record of looking hard at these issues.

On the other hand, there are some tough and politically salient decisions to be made and, as readers in local government will be all too aware, you can waste a lot of your life waiting for White Papers to appear.

The key challenge is that there are two very different approaches that could be taken to levelling up, both of which were apparent in the recent local election results.

The Government’s approach as set out to date is based on centrally-driven, targeted interventions through the Levelling Up Fund, the Towns Fund, the Community Renewal Fund and, one day, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU Structural funding.

The advantage for Government in this approach is that it retains control of the purse strings and is able to control the nature and the location of levelling up initiatives.

However, these elections also threw a spotlight on a different approach to levelling up with the re-election of the metro mayors.

The devolved powers these mayors deploy began, and to a large extent remain, very focused on growth, infrastructure and investment, but we have seen how politicians as different as Andy Burnham, Ben Houchen or Andy Street have effectively linked these powers to emergent regional political identities. They all talk about the language of regional representation.

The tension between these two types of place-building: one driven by central Government and one driven by local political actors could be a significant structural fissure in our political life over the next few years.

At present, it seems clear which way the Government is going to lean – especially given recent reports that the Levelling Up White Paper will be replacing the endlessly deferred Devolution White Paper. It also seems unlikely that the Government will want to forego control over, and political credit for, investment in ‘left behind’ towns.

But this could be a mistake politically, in that, a grant-based approach, based on a particular profile, risks alienating those areas that do not fit it: cities, but also traditionally Conservative voting areas in the South East.

More importantly, this could be a mistake strategically because the results may not be as good or as long-lasting.

The Government wants to level up; that’s hard to argue with, but places need to stay levelled up. The danger is that by channelling everything through centrally-controlled funds, we fail to build real capacity and keep places dependent on Government patronage.

It recalls the old maxim about the difference between giving people fish and teaching them to fish.

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 is how we will achieve a form of levelling up that is transformative, not cyclical.

As political expedience and long-term benefit may pull in different directions. The Levelling Up Task Force will have its work cut out to square this circle.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of LGIU. This blog was first published by The Municipal Journal.

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