How does the government's long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper shape up to the aspirations of our levelling up blog series? Owen Garling shares his thoughts.
In early 2021, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy launched a series of blogs to explore the government’s manifesto pledge to level up, the country. One year on, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove MP has delivered a Levelling Up White Paper which in part answers some of these questions but still leaves many open.
The Levelling Up White Paper is certainly not short of ambition. In many ways it reads more like a manifesto for change than a departmental White Paper. Although presented to parliament by the Rt Hon Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, it also bears the hallmarks of its co-author, Andy Haldane in its systemic approach to the forces that shape the economic geography of the UK.
To ensure that levelling up can be woven into all of the government’s policy programmes, its ongoing development and delivery is supported by a recently established cross-government Levelling Up Cabinet Committee. The White Paper tasks the committee with “embedding levelling up across central government policy design and delivery . . . [and to] . . . also work directly with local leaders to improve the clarity, consistency and coordination of policy.” In a move that many see as reflecting previous approaches to central government’s engagement outside of London, the White Paper’s creation of nine Regional Director roles also provides a direct link, or ‘line of sight’ to each of the English regions. A key question is whether these roles will develop into integral parts of each region’s policy ecosystem, or whether they will always retain a feeling of being Whitehall’s man or woman in the regions.
By structuring the White Paper around a series of a dozen ‘missions’, its authors have also moved it away from a single departmental view of the country. But we are yet to see how these missions will be translated into policy by individual departments and other tiers of government. There is a risk that they will become just another set of centrally defined targets that departments try and shoehorn their existing policy programmes into rather than fundamentally considering and changing how they work. Without this, it is not clear how levelling up will lead to the ambition of “rewiring Whitehall.”
One of the Bennett Institute’s key research themes is Place and as expected, it is also a key theme in the White Paper. As Dr Rehema Msulwa outlined in her blog on infrastructure, at the very heart of levelling up is the tension between place-based and space-blind policy: how much should policy be tailored to specific places and how much should policy be the same everywhere?
The White Paper identifies the individuality of different places and in broad brushstrokes acknowledges that “it is about unleashing opportunity, prosperity and pride in places where, for too long, it has been held back.” This language echoes the Conservative Party’s belief as set out in their manifesto that “you can and must trust people and communities to make the decisions that are right for them.”
Despite its place focus, the question of how levelling up will address issues of power and governance needs to be asked. The editorial for the latest issue of the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society includes a taxonomy of spatial policies which is useful for this. The taxonomy categorises spatial policies into three main types or approaches:
- Top-down ‘Spatially Targeted’ Policies – central policies and measures directed at specially designated ‘problem’ places
- ‘Place-Sensitive’ Nationwide Policies – nationwide policies and measures adjusted to take account of locally varying needs
- Bottom-up ‘Place-Based’ policies – locally designed and implemented specifically tailored economic programmes
A cursory glance through the Policy Programme set out in the White Paper shows, as might be expected in one of the world’s most centralised countries, plenty of top-down ‘spatially-targeted’ policies and place sensitive nationwide policies. And whilst it includes greater clarity around the framework for devolution, it is still not clear how much power there will be for locally designed and implemented programmes if there is not any further funding attached.
Whilst place may be a core organising principle of the White Paper it is less clear how levelling up will address the scale or level at which policies should operate.
Our initial blog on levelling up identified that “what may work at a regional level, such as investment in infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and schools, may have less of an impact at a smaller geographical scale. Equally, investment in social infrastructure is likely to have a greater impact at a community level, rather than at a regional scale.”
The Levelling Up White Paper seems to fudge the question of scale by setting out a range of different sized projects without ever articulating the relationship between them.
For example, devolution is proposed through a series of County Deals alongside the existing Metropolitan Combined Authorities. Will this mean that populous areas of the country such as Yorkshire (population: 5.4 million) will have the same powers devolved to them as smaller counties such as Norfolk (population: 908,000) and Suffolk? (population: 760,000)?
The White Paper also suggests that Local Enterprise Partnerships, currently based on functional economic geographies, will be merged with Metropolitan Combined Authorities. Whilst this may be a way of phasing out a previous emblem of regional development, the question remains about what will happen to areas where there are currently no Combined Authorities.
There is some confusion too around the geographical dimensions of the Shared Prosperity Fund; the outline details of which were announced on the same day. The Shared Prosperity Fund, a replacement for EU funding, will provide funding at the level of district councils or Metropolitan Combined Authorities with the support of their local MPs, even though their constituencies form a completely different geography. There is every likelihood that the confusion of economic, political and administrative geographies that has bedevilled English devolution will not be improved by these changes.
As we have noted throughout our blog series, levelling up is an inherently comparative goal, whether that be across different places or within them, although its advocates rarely stipulate the implied area for comparison.
The intention set out in the White Paper to “transform [the UK government’s] approach to data and evaluation to improve local decision-making” is an ambitious objective which we welcome and which we have called for in a number of our recent pieces of work, such as our report on the Value of Social Infrastructure.
By clearly setting out a range of measures that move beyond the purely economic, the Levelling Up White Paper does provide some clarity on the question of comparisons. The production of a Subnational indicators explorer by the Office for National Statistics also supports this and enables local areas, at the local authority level, to be able to both understand their own performance and compare their performance with other areas. Underpinning the White Paper with a capitals approach will also hopefully lead to policymakers exploring the interconnectedness of the different measures rather than seeing them as a set of discrete, unrelated indicators.
So, does the Levelling Up White Paper address the questions that we set out to address in our blog series? The answer, I think, is that the ambition of the White Paper is to be commended, as is the diagnosis of the reasons for the United Kingdom’s geographical inequality. But there remains a gap between the words and sentiments of the White Paper and practical delivery. The next months and years will be crucial in seeing how successful this policy programme will be.