Published on 30 March 2022
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Levelling Up – the only way for Essex

Levelling up is often seen of as a way of tackling the persistent north-south divide that national regional economic policy has struggled to reduce. And yet ‘levelling up’ can also be applied at a sub-national scale. Mark Doran at Essex County Council, discusses how the concept of ‘levelling up’ resonates with the work that is taking place across Essex to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Levelling Up White Paper rightly sets out a clear aim of addressing the significant inequalities that exist between regions of England, particularly the rest of the country vis-a-vis the ‘Greater South-East’. Many elements are to be greatly welcomed: the high ambition, clear analysis of the history, and recognition of the systemic and complex nature of the problem, as Diane Coyle recently set out.

The White Paper also recognises that “typically, differences within UK regions or cities are larger than differences between regions on most performance metrics.” However, this crucial insight is insufficiently and inconsistently explored through the rest of the paper, meaning the Government’s resulting approach risks being too broad-brush and failing to tackle or even exacerbating some of the very spatial inequalities it seeks to address.

This intra-regional variation is exemplified in a county like Essex.

Essex is one of the largest counties in England – both in terms of area and population – with a diverse make-up from the rural north of the county to the urban developments of the Thames Gateway. It has a population of 1.4 million, the longest coastline in England, dense urban areas in the south that are part of the economic geography of London and are even on the tube network, a med-tech corridor in the west that looks to Cambridge, and rural areas in the north that border the Fens. Essex is prosperous, ambitious and dynamic: we have a £40 billion per annum economy, support 700,000 jobs, are home to nearly 75,000 businesses and are the only county to have Freeports at the north and the south of our coast. Yet we are also home to the poorest ward in England (Jaywick) and towns with deep-seated urban deprivation. There are more than 123,000 people in Essex (including 40,000 children) that live in areas that are in the 20 per cent most deprived of the whole UK.

To treat Essex as a homogeneous whole is to ignore the significant variation in wealth, health and environment between our different communities. This is the challenge when data is presented at a County level, averaged across 1.4 million people, as the White Paper does for educational outcomes for example, inevitably masking poor outcomes in some schools and excellent outcomes in others.

The disparity in outcomes can be stark; where you live  makes a big difference to your life chances:

  • At Key Stage 4 there is a 30 per cent gap in educational attainment between the most and least deprived areas in the county.
  • There is on average a 12-year life expectancy gap between the most and least deprived areas of the county.
  • Health outcomes among the residents of the most deprived areas of the county are significantly worse than in the least deprived areas: 87% higher instance of respiratory progressive diseases (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease); 69% increase of mental health conditions; and adult obesity is 53% higher.

So here in Essex County Council we’ve been developing our own approach to levelling up. While waiting for the Government’s White Paper, we published our own Levelling Up ‘White Paper’. Though admittedly less comprehensive in our analysis of the historical issues, we try to articulate an approach that is Essex-specific and seeks to marshal available local resources, hopefully tackling some of the problems with the Government’s approach recently identified by Jack Newman et al.

Instead of six ‘capitals’ we set out our ambition to level up economic, environmental, health, education and community outcomes across the county.

We then articulate some core principles underpinning how we will seek to achieve this, including being:

  • Both place-based and cohort-focused – recognising that inequalities affect both people and places and we need to address both.
  • A shared endeavour – requiring action right across the Council and the wider system.
  • Long-term – there are no quick fixes. 
  • Cross-cutting – levelling up will not be achieved issue by issue, but by joining up our work at a place and people level.
  • Structural – we want to address the root causes, not symptoms (as symptoms are already where a lot of our existing service interventions are necessarily focused).
  • About sustainable change – supporting aspiration, enterprise and opportunity among individuals, families and communities, rather than creating dependency.
  • Driven by a diversity of approaches – blending service delivery, strategic place-shaping, local capacity building, devolution, and convening power.

Our evidence base included the Indices of Multiple Deprivation and the Community Needs Index, and incorporates the work of the This is Purpose Coalition, which has developed a framework of 14 ‘levelling up goals’.

The resulting analysis has led us to focus on:

  • Key places: Clacton, Harwich, Colchester, rural Braintree, Harlow, Canvey Island and Basildon.
  • Key cohorts: Children and adults with special educational needs and disabilities, learning disabilities, or mental health conditions (taking an all-age approach); children on free school meals; working families; young adults (16-25-years) who have not been in education, training or employment for around 6-12 months.

The Council is stepping up, with the Deputy Leader, Councillor Louise McKinlay, announcing a £10 million Levelling Up Fund, a £500,000 Community Challenge Fund, and an additional £10 million to support the economy and skills over the next four years. We will be setting out our initial plans in each of the locations over the coming months, as part of wide-ranging engagement with our local partners and local communities.

The first place-based launch took place in Harlow at the Arise Innovation Centre (a jointly funded venture between Essex County Council and ARU (Anglia Ruskin University), itself a levelling up intervention which connects local businesses in the emerging med-tech, health and digital sectors with the latest research. Our initial levelling-up activity will focus on:

  • A new programme called Harlow Futures to support children and young people in their learning and then the transition into employment. Together with the Essex Year of Reading, this programme seeks to address the impacts on learning that the pandemic has had in particular on children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • A new Electric Vehicle (EV) Centre at Harlow College, funding 50 training places over a 24-month period from September 2022.  This will enable local people to develop professional qualifications in EV repair and maintenance, which we know will be a major growth sector and is key to supporting the transition to carbon net zero.
  • A Skills Engine focused on skills in the STEAM areas: Science (including med-tech and digital, which are key areas for Harlow), Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, to provide a more coherent offer for the unemployed and those looking to upskill and retrain, focused predominately at 16-24 year olds.
  • ParkPlay in Harlow Town Park, which operates like Park Run but is focused on playtime rather than running. It’s a great new programme that shows the power of play and fun activities to bring people together, build social connections and support healthy and active lifestyles.

In parallel, we’re also developing our strategic approach to boosting future growth across the county through our forthcoming Sector Development Strategy, Green Skills Infrastructure Review and work on inward investment.

These processes are necessarily causing us to revisit some strategic choices: What’s the County Council’s role in shaping the market and influencing the skills system; what’s the right balance between driving economic growth at the macro-level (a rising tide lifts all boats) versus intensive interventions at the individual level for the most complex cohorts; how do we build on community assets and strengths; and, of course, how we approach evaluation both individually and collectively as local partners.

So very much an evolving picture, and certainly a complex one, but also an approach that has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of many of our residents in the most deprived areas of Essex and of the country as a whole.

None of this is to argue against the central premise of the Levelling Up White Paper that there needs to be a shift of investment to support other parts of the country – there is well over a century of structural policy to redress. But the approach needs to be more nuanced than a north/south divide. It just wouldn’t be fair for the residents of Jaywick, Canvey Island, Harlow and Basildon to lose out simply because of which region of the country they happen to live in. That would be to repeat the mistakes of history – something this White Paper seems to go to great lengths to avoid.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).


Mark Doran

Mark Doran has been Director of Sustainable Growth at Essex County Council since July 2020, responsible for the County’s work on place-shaping (including housing and planning), economic development, innovation, skills...

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