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Written on 11 Jan 2021 by Owen Garling

Levelling Up

On coming to power a year ago, the stated intent of the Conservative Party was to ‘level up’ every part of the country. Owen Garling introduces a new blog series on levelling up to explore how it can move from a manifesto pledge to concrete policy decisions that have a positive impact on people’s lives.

On coming to power a year ago, the stated intent of the Conservative Party was to ‘level up’ every part of the country: from our “great towns and cities” to our “rural and coastal areas”. Despite this fresh-sounding rhetoric, such ‘levelling up’ is in fact the latest in a long line of programmes developed by successive British governments which are intended to address the unequal economic performance of the regions of the United Kingdom.

As a country we are currently dealing with the seismic challenges posed first, by Brexit and, now, recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as the opportunities afforded by the UK’s commitments to achieving net zero. We know that those places that are in need of levelling up have suffered particularly heavily through the pandemic, and are likely to experience a disproportionate impact from Brexit.

However, as a policy programme levelling up remains elusive. It is still rather vaguely defined, and appears to mean different things to different people. A key question that needs to be more openly addressed is how levelling up can be woven into all of the government’s policy programmes to ensure that they have a positive impact on the inequalities being felt by those hardest hit places.

The idea of levelling up also arises from a growing recognition in the political and policy worlds that ‘place’ matters. It reflects an understanding that, over time, some places have faired better than others, and that the social and economic challenges of the current period have affected places in very different ways.

Previous approaches to regional policy have reflected different assumptions about what is the most appropriate geographical scale at which to address spatial inequality, and to develop a system of regional governance. A deeper understanding of the history of these various initiatives and the importance of considering different georaphical levels are vital contributions to the emerging debate about what levelling up should mean. A focus upon regions illustrates broad differences between the fortunes of large geographical areas, but necessarily reduces analysis of divergences within them.

These different geographies matter because different policy options and ideas may be appropriate for each. 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.

Choices made for entire regions could have unintended consequences at a more granular level, such as increasing the inequality between places within a region. Aiming to level up at a more granular level brings its own set of problems. The smaller the area of focus, the more detail will become apparent, the greater the number of policy choices that need to be made and managed, and the more complicated, and harder to deliver, is the required policy framework.

Levelling up is an inherently comparative goal, although its advocates rarely stipulate what is the implied area for comparison. Recognising this raises an important question about what the basis for comparison should be and how it should be measured. For example, regional devolution in England has been built on a framework of primarily economic measures. But do these give a true picture of the fortunes and experiences of different places, and should economic growth be the only or main focus for policy intervention?

Making comparisons also raises the question of who gets to define the measures of success. To date, both regional devolution and place-based funding initiatives have been developed through processes of bilateral deal-making or competitive tendering, which leave the political and administrative firmly in charge. However, given that the Conservative Party manifesto affirmed their belief that “you can and must trust people and communities to make the decisions that are right for them,” the question of how will levelling up address issues of power and governance needs also to be asked.

Finally, making informed comparisons also requires an understanding of what it is that has made some places more succesful than others. This itself raises questions of whether success means places following a linear path, trying to grow the same high-value sectors as, say London and the South East, when the prospects for such developments are much less likely.

This series reflects our interest in these debates and commitment to bringing our own research programmes to bear upon them.

Our recent series of papers – An Industrial Strategy for Tomorrow – argues that, “[for] the new government in the UK, an industrial strategy represents one of the key institutional vehicles for achieving its main policy goals.”

As Industrial Strategies morph into COVID recovery plans, we too are redirecting our attention to the closely related challenges associated with levelling up. This series will draw on the findings of the Bennett Institute’s three main research programmes –place, progress and productivity – as well as bringing together contributions from the wider academic and policymaking communities to explore and give greater depth to our understanding of some of the most important policy issues that will have a bearing upon the achievement of this ambitious, and ill defined, goal.

The recent Comprehensive Spending Review gave some clues to the approach that the government appears to be taking. It included the announcement of a £4 billion Fund for England to “invest in local infrastructure that has a visible impact on people and their communities”; a new National Infrastructure Strategy based around the three central objectives of “economic recovery, levelling up and unleashing the potential of the Union, and meeting the UK’s net zero emissions target by 2050”; and a refreshed Green Bookto ensure that project appraisals properly analyse how proposals deliver the government’s key priorities, including levelling up, and how they will impact different places.”     

In this series we will publish reflections on some of these specific issues, as well as the wider questions discussed above. We will have contributions on the role of infrastructure, the importance of data and measurement, the relationship between trust, social capital and levelling up, and the impact of a transition to a net zero carbon economy on left-behind places. We will also look outside the UK to consider whether there are lessons to be learned from how other countries have managed regional inequalities.

Our intention is that this series will help to stimulate the emerging debate about levelling up by bringing our and others’ research to bear on these issues. We also hope that these pieces will trigger conversations and provide evidence that enables levelling up to yield positive and sustainable interventions and initiatives.

 Read more about the Levelling Up blog series.

  • 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