England & Wales, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

The day of reckoning in the land of local government is here at last

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Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

The day of reckoning in the land of local government is here at last. For months we have been promised the Levelling Up White Paper, but delay after delay kept us in anticipation, until now.

Following a reshuffle in the Autumn that placed the new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, at the helm of the levelling up agenda, not much else has happened surrounding what has been the key theme of the current UK Government since the general election.

As a result, there have been many 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? – 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?

From LGIU’s perspective, and that of our members, our main question surrounds what will be the role of local government and of local communities in planning and delivering levelling up?

As part of the debate so far, the LGIU has published a series of briefings and research papers for our members to try and clarify what levelling up will entail, whether it is a coherent policy and how local government can respond. This bundle brings together our extensive collection of materials around levelling up.

We hoped that the new White Paper would offer up at least some of these long-awaited answers.

In the end, perhaps inevitably, the Levelling Up White Paper doesn’t quite rise to its own challenge.

It sets out an analysis of the causes and impacts of regional economic disparities and proposes 12 missions to address these challenges. These give some clarity to what levelling up means, contain social as well as economic dimensions and have measurable metrics for success.

It’s far less clear how these missions will be accomplished. Both the structural reforms to local governance and the specific policy measures announced feel piecemeal and, in the main, familiar.

Clarity, broader scope and accountability were all important elements that LGIU wanted to see in this White Paper. However, it’s not clear what the devolution proposals in the paper really amount to. They feel very similar in scope to the devolution programme of 2015/16 and are notably lacking in real fiscal devolution. Without this it’s not clear that Directly Elected Mayors, or county deals will be able to turbo charge levelling up in the way that the government hopes.

There is already a debate about how much of the funding identified in the paper is actually new, but just as important as the quantum of funding is the way in which it is distributed. Local areas bidding competitively to Whitehall is inefficient, promotes short termism and stifles innovation and collaboration. The paper recognises this challenge but does little to resolve it.

If we want places around the UK to level up and stay levelled up, we need to build genuine capacity. That can’t be done if local areas are kept dependent on central government funding and approval from Whitehall or Holyrood, going to them cap in hand.

Accomplishing the paper’s 12 missions would undoubtedly make a country a better place, but it remains to be seen whether the UK Government has the appetite to unlock the local innovation and autonomy that we will need to make that happen.

We look forward to seeing the full detail and will of course continue to provide support and analysis to our members in response to this.

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