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Written on 12 Mar 2021 by Professor Michael Kenny and Owen Garling

Levelling up: lessons from history

Professor Michael Kenny and Owen Garling put the Government’s mission to level up in historical context.

A commitment to achieve a substantial degree of levelling up in the current parliament was one of the Conservative Party’s keynote manifesto pledges at the 2019 general election. Many within the parliamentary party – including those MPs who make up the newly-formed Northern Research Group – see this as a vital promise which, in combination with the party’s stance on Brexit, helped it win a number of ‘Red Wall’ seats from the Labour Party.

Despite this, ‘levelling up’ has yet to be converted from an appealing slogan into a coherent and manageable policy programme. This is partly due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which landed just as priorities and goals were being developed by the new government in the early weeks of 2020. It is also, we suggest, for more deeply rooted historical reasons.

Levelling up should be seen as the latest incarnation of a longstanding, and mostly unfulfilled, aspiration – one that has been pursued with varying degrees of commitment by successive UK Governments as far back as the 1960s – to tackle the significant divergences in the economic fortunes and prospects of the country’s regions and nations. Given the plethora of policies and initiatives that have been pursued in relation to this goal in the last few decades, and the lack of success of most of these, it should come as no surprise that the current version of this idea is proving so hard to define and deliver.

Indeed, a richer sense of the precursors to today’s ideas, and the various kinds of intervention and reform that regional policymaking has encompassed, should be a requisite part of the thinking required to develop a viable approach to level up successfully now.

One of the most striking – and salutary – lessons to be gleaned from a review of the many previous initiatives that have been attempted in this area is the realisation that there is considerable continuity over the last century in terms of which areas of the country suffer the highest level of relative deprivation, although now that devolution has been introduced for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the territorial focus has shrunk to England. If, for instance, we compare the map of those areas supported by the Special Areas Act passed in 1934 by the National Government led by Ramsay MacDonald with those places that are now depicted as ‘left behind’, there are significant similarities in the standing of former centres of industrial strength such as Tyneside, Cumbria, and South Wales. Indeed, the inability to devise meaningful answers to the problems facing many post-industrial cities and towns is one of the most damaging, and overlooked, failures of modern British government.

However, there have been some important changes too. The current map of geographical disadvantage now also includes – as our ‘Townscapes’ project illustrates – a larger number of English and Welsh towns as well as those faded resorts dotted around the coastline.

Regional policymaking in Britain has historically been bedevilled by two fraught questions.

First, how much direct resource should be diverted by the state to protect ailing industries in poorer regions? This has been a major concern since staple industries, like steel, and coal mining, have struggled to adapt to increasing global competition in the first half of the last century. It remains a key question in light of the economic ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the transition towards a green, zero carbon economy, both of which generate major challenges across a number of sectors within the economy.

Second, how can key decisions be taken nearer to these localities and regions themselves, in order to ensure that policy is more effectively tailored to local circumstances? This last issue has been especially difficult for governments which have, since the 1980s, been increasingly sceptical of the efficiency and capacity of local councils.

There has been a myriad of attempts by central government to build a new structure of delegated authority, beyond the scope of local councils. The failure of the Regional Development Agencies to avert the widening gap between London and the South East and other regions in England put Labour’s political opponents off this kind of model. The subsequent Coalition Government’s preferred alternative was a more anaemic set of Local Enterprise Partnerships and a new suite of combined authorities run by elected mayors – entities that arose in some parts of England out of bilateral negotiations with Whitehall. The continual tinkering with the mezzanine level of government in England over the last two decades stands in stark contrast to the development of new forms of devolved government which passed significant responsibilities and capability to the non-English parts of the UK.

In England, Whitehall and Westminster are still the primary sites of decision-making for most of the issues affecting its regions’ economies, and there are few signs of a commitment to working in closer partnership with other tiers of government. Where joint working has been developed, it has often been through centrally held, policy-specific pots of money and some form of bidding or ‘deal’ arrangement between central government and other tiers of government. Yet the feeling that large parts of England were poorly served by the decisions and priorities of central government has been developing for some while across England, contributing to the sense of disenchantment that powered the vote for Brexit.

While regional policy can claim only a small number of limited successes in England, there are still important and valuable lessons which policymakers should take from the efforts, and failings, of their predecessors.

First, for levelling up to work, a stronger sense of the geographical diversity of England’s localities, and of the different spatial scales at which policy needs to work, is imperative. Earlier institutional approaches – including the macro-regions which New Labour fetishised, and the Northern Powerhouse focus advanced by George Osborne – may well be apposite for some policy functions – for instance some powers in the areas of planning, skills, and large-scale infrastructure.

But other kinds of policy intervention – in domains like social infrastructure, housing, and local business support – are much better directed and delivered at the levels of cities and towns. The abiding preference of Whitehall is to deal only with one layer of constrained authority beneath it, but the economic revitalisation of disparate places requires that key responsibilities be exercised much closer to the ground by local decision-makers.

Policies should be developed at the scale at which they will be most effective. This will require a more differentiated and vertically integrated approach than what has been previously attempted.

Second, the core goals associated with levelling up need to be defined in a more generous and sophisticated fashion, and detached from a stultifying focus upon economic benefit, narrowly conceived. One of the abiding features of regional policy in the UK has been a preoccupation with investments that are most likely to provide immediate return, and a correlative neglect of the assets, skills, infrastructure, and strengths of different communities and the places they inhabit. For example, while the last several decades have seen the ongoing renaissance of the centres of northern cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, it does not seem that the associated benefits are felt by communities on the periphery of these core cities.

Indeed, there is a growing body of research and evidence which, together, suggest that a focus on these less tangible goals is – over the longer term – just as important in generating real economic benefits as well as positive social impacts. Indeed, the Green Book – the Treasury’s tool for appraising public sector projects – has recently been amended to ensure that these less tangible goals are now incorporated in the appraisal of projects.

There is also a danger that the focus on how to make left behind places catch up assumes a linear path to healthy economic development which all successful places can, and should, follow. Not everywhere can be the next Silicon Valley, and not every region will benefit from investments in high-value industries or clusters.

In fact, it is only by appraising the different kinds of assets and resources – both physical and intangible – that communities possess, and devising policies that protect these and address other key gaps, that progress is likely to be made. Equally, people’s sense of worth and wellbeing relates in important ways to the quality and feel of the places where they live, and policies that promote the physical environment, keep streets clean and safe, and enable wider use of natural assets, like parks and green places, can have significant longer term impact upon the health, wellbeing, and productivity of an area.

There is, therefore, no template for tackling regional inequality, and no one-size-fits-all model for resource allocation to left-behind places that will guarantee success.

One final, key lesson can be gleaned from what has been tried previously. While the Government invariably wants to see speedy and concrete results from its investments and actions, the benefits of a more regionally focused policy programme are likely to happen slowly and gradually, and much will depend upon the quality of local leadership and the interaction between central and local decision-makers.

This makes regional policy a very tough nut to crack for any Government that is working to an electoral cycle which demands quick returns. Change for the better will take time, and will hinge upon a range of factors, a number of which lie beyond the control of Whitehall.

A readiness to recognise and internalise the challenging, and often uncertain, contexts in which interventions in different areas are being attempted should be an integral part of the mindset of those developing policy in this area. This means paying more attention to the value of local experiments and pilot schemes, and looking harder at whether initiatives in certain places can be replicated in others or not. It also means changing the focus of those working in Whitehall and Westminster so that the challenges and merits of a place-focused policy framework do not run aground on the silos and centralism of the Whitehall machine.

Original source: 'The Great Levelling?' Bright Blue, Centre Write - Sring 2021

  • About the author

    Professor Michael Kenny, Co-Director, Bennett Institute for Public Policy

    Professor Kenny directs the Institute’s place and public policy programme.   Learn more

    Mike Kenny
  • About the author

    Owen Garling, Knowledge Transfer Facilitator

    Owen Garling works at the Bennett Institute in the role of Knowledge Transfer Facilitator. He is currently on secondment from his role as a Transformation Manager at Cambridgeshire County Council, where his work has focussed on understanding how the public sector can work differently by ...   Learn more