A key promise of the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto was to overturn deep and entrenched inequalities by “Levelling Up” across the UK, to address long standing geographic divides. A tumultuous two years later and the pandemic has not only exacerbated these issues but also pushed policies and reforms further down the political agenda including levelling up. Having spent the last few months managing the Omicron variant amongst other “party” issues, the government has delayed publication of the Levelling Up white paper from 2021 to today, 2 February 2022. But what do the government mean by levelling up?
“When I became mayor in 2008 you could travel from Westminster to Canning Town on the jubilee line and lose a year of life expectancy with every stop and yet at the end of my time as mayor that was no longer true – life expectancy had increased across the capital – but the gains had been greatest among the poorest groups and that is what I mean by levelling up.” Boris Johnson, July 2021
If living in a post-Brexit world whilst simultaneously fighting a global pandemic has taught us anything about policy in the last two years, we know that it must be flexible, responsive and capable of dealing with global change at a local level. During this time the UK has seen disparities in regional productivity, social inequalities and geographic divides exacerbated even further. In response, the government propose “to deliver a programme of tangible improvements in every part of the UK” by raising living standards, spreading opportunity, improving public services and restoring people’s sense of pride in their communities.
The levelling up agenda will be led by Johnson and his aides including the newly appointed Secretary of State for Levelling Up Michael Gove MP, Head of the Levelling Up Taskforce and former Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane and Levelling up Advisor and MP for Harborough Neil O’Brien. Not being the only significant change in structure, in September 2021, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and local government (MHCLG) was renamed the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).
Any levelling up strategy will need to reflect a responsive, flexible and fair system as illustrated by events over the last two years. Research by the Centre for Cities suggests that “cities and large towns in Northern England and the Midlands are among the places most in need of levelling up” and lag far behind on a range of measures including health, skills and productivity compared to the Greater South East of England. However, Covid has affected southern cities that were previously reliant on the aviation industry including Crawley, Luton and Slough, illustrating the socio-economic impacts of global and international change on regional and local communities.
The strategy will need to be underpinned by the appropriate evidence, resources and funding at a local level as well as metrics to measure the success, or otherwise, of projects. Gove has aspirations to streamline and simplify funding to reduce the time and resources taken for Councils to apply for funds and ensure fairness in awards. The first round of bidders in the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund which was awarded in October 2021 saw funds distributed to areas in both the highest (Burnley £20m and
Stoke-on-Trent £56m) and least deprived areas (Central Bedfordshire £27m and Isles of Scilly £48.5m) of the UK, illustrating a need for greater understanding behind the overarching aims of the levelling up strategy. In fact, the spending watchdog has this week criticised the government for potentially wasting millions of the Levelling Up Fund by picking projects that are too small to revive poorer communities and the lack of evidence behind the projects awarded.
To avoid missed opportunities for improving living standards, skills or addressing inequalities, there must be coherence, communication and accountability between localised projects and their wider regional connectivity. It is believed that Gove aims to replicate a system he used for both Brexit and the Covid response by streamlining the work being carried out by various government departments, to enable this much needed coherence and understanding. The system proposes that cabinet committees would keep the levelling up agenda on track with a strategy committee chaired by Johnson as the Prime Minster and an operations committee chaired by Gove himself as SoS
Along with the White Paper, the delayed Planning Bill is also due in early 2022 and will be managed by Gove who took over from Jenrick as Housing Secretary in September 2021. The white paper will expand on the four areas Gove considers key to levelling up communities – local leadership, living standards, public services and pride of place, with a number of government publications and policies being updated over the last six months to support this.
It is anticipated that Gove’s plans for local leadership include granting more powers to local leaders to shape their communities with roles like metro mayors like Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester or Andy Street in Birmingham. To fully contribute to the levelling up agenda in their area, time and cash poor local authorities will need to be given the correct tools and sufficient resources to address local challenges. It is hoped that the white paper will speed up the process of devolving the powers and responsibilities local leaders need, especially around budgets, to deliver tangible benefits that improve the quality of life and enables levelling up in the local community.
Combined with major planning reforms to deliver the longstanding target of 300,000 homes a year, the white paper is expected to address issues around living standards. According to the National Housing Federation (NHF), of the 123,151 homes built in 2020, only 42,084 (34%) were in the affordable housing and Build to Rent sector. The cost and quality of housing combined with a chronic housing shortage continue to negatively impact the living standards of many ordinary people. However, with one million homes with permission over the last decade having not been built is it the planning system or housing delivery that is really the problem? The £8.6bn Affordable Homes Programme announced in August 2021 aims to deliver 119,000 affordable homes but there is criticism from local authorities that government formulas and algorithms for housing numbers are no match for local knowledge. Instead, local authorities would like to retain Right to Buy receipts and the right to invest locally in new and existing stock.
Whilst there has been much political and policy focus on physical development including regeneration and transport improvements, future plans are expected to feature heavily on public services including education, skills and jobs. New measures came into force in January 2021 under the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 to deliver social value priorities through public procurement. This includes supporting local communities to recover from the impact of Covid, tackling economic inequality through creating new businesses, jobs and skills, fighting climate change and waste, driving equal opportunity by reducing the disability employment gap, improving health and wellbeing and community integration.
When considering pride of place, the recently updated National Model Design Code (2021) provides local authorities with a ten-point design code checklist from which to make their own design codes. This code is currently being tested by the newly formed Office for Place, and over 20 councils and communities. Providing they follow national guidance requirements, the idea of pride of place looks set to focus on giving greater power to local authorities on design quality, placemaking and regeneration strategies.
Clearly, there will be a need for clarity of the definition of levelling up; the flexibility to enable targeted action that reflects local needs and changing circumstances and metrics to measure and evaluate the success of projects as a way of developing best practices. Local priorities, existing strategies, development funds and public or private partners will need to be utilised and actions supported by decentralised powers that take the decision making out of Whitehall and into towns and cities across the country. It is important to remember that geography is not the driver for disparities between regions so national policy interventions must empower local actions.
 Ambitious plans to drive levelling up agenda – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) 22 November 2021