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Written on 22 Feb 2021 by Tom McNeil

Levelling Up in the West Midlands – A plan to turn adversity into advantage

There’s enough evidence to suggest that 'real' empowerment to level up might come from government policy that has been shaped, designed and even made by the regions themselves, writes Tom McNeil, Strategic Adviser to the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner.

For those optimistic about the untapped qualities of the regions, whether in Wales, the Midlands, the North or otherwise, there is an inherent notion of ‘empowerment’ within the ‘levelling up’ agenda. If thought of in this way, levelling up is as a sort of emancipation; unlocking the potential in constituencies outside of London.

If we accept that, then the concept of ‘empowerment’ deserves further attention. On the one hand, it can be taken to refer to an economic stimulation driven by a central government agenda or brainchild. This might, when or if delivered, see large infrastructure projects designed to yield industrial growth opportunities – long distance transport connectivity, a national approach for anchor institution revitalisation, planned regional strategies harnessing agglomeration principles.

While these top-down decisions are never easy (such as when environmental trades-offs come to the fore), they are typically welcomed by those geographies suffering enduring unemployment, industry deficits and the corresponding cocktail of social hardship that emanates from community decline.

But empowerment can be something really quite different. It need not present itself in the form of a line of grateful local people, hands out, smiling through gritted teeth to accept what they might sometimes regard as ‘fiscal crumbs’ – crumbs allocated to and decided for them by mysterious Whitehall policy processes, assuming those decisions come at all. Looked at this way, real empowerment might come from government policy that has genuinely been shaped, perhaps designed and even made for them, by the regions themselves.

This is not to suggest there is an absence of policy expertise and high-moral agendas in central government. Clearly there is a great wealth of it. Nor is it to say that we should always look to artificially create ‘co-design’ forums, if those forums will make already clunky policy design and implementation even heavier, slower and more bureaucratic. It is however to argue that, when a region comes forward, with a detailed, credible, evidence-based proposition, government should act quickly to dynamically empower that regional initiative. This kind of empowerment is one that has trust in the intellectual assets of the regions, and their ability to truly understand their own challenges and generate creative solutions that are deserving of swift action. It is also about dedicating the funds to make their local levelling up proposition a reality, without a thousand hoops that end up costing more than the initiative itself. Levelling up then, is not always simply about giving something additional to the regions, it’s about giving them something they want, and quicker.

Let me now, opportunistically, offer you a real world example, regarding how the government is invited to empower the West Midlands. Optimistically entitled A Future Generations Deal, the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner David Jamieson pitched a holistic policy package in response to certain emerging trends arising from Covid-19, that sees crime prevention, social care, education and tackling climate change as profoundly interlinked. Although never written as a deliberate ‘levelling up’ pitch, this Deal has all the hallmarks of such – a set of options generated by a region itself and sensitive to the needs of its own particular locality; presenting a local partnership proposition more likely capable of cutting across institutional silos than centralised behemoths; solutions led by a democratically elected leader of a devolved authority and arguably with greater local legitimacy as a result.

Taken individually, the Future Generations policies might struggle to attract an air of novelty. Combined into a holistic strategy, they help carve a path through the region’s complexity. With economic agendas being considered fundamentally intertwined with social policy, the package argues that meaningful growth in wellbeing and economic potential, must strike at the drag created by long lasting social hardship in the West Midlands. As such, it argues that only by recognising the complexity of many people’s lives, will we unleash their and future generations’ true social, intellectual and economic capacity.

Bold objectives often start with hard truths. In this case, the tough reality is that Covid-19 risks presenting the West Midlands with a large spike in unemployment; most likely due to its disproportional impact on young people, women, those on low pay and those from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. In the worst case scenarios, the lack of opportunity and very real experiences of poverty and destitution will see some exploited into crime or turn to criminality from sheer desperation. Through another lens, hundreds of children in the West Midlands who were already vulnerable to various forms of abuse or neglect, risk intensified suffering. With so many being out of school, reduced capacity for social services and lost opportunities to identify vulnerability, many risk experiencing a devastating mix of domestic abuse, substance misuse, mental health issues, insufficiently supported learning needs, school exclusions, homelessness and other traumas.

Thankfully, the levelling up agenda could, with central departments attuned to listening, see a new era of social care and economic opportunity that turns this adversity into advantage. The Future Generations Deal calls for a radical new investment into pastoral support in schools. Developing on existing innovative practice found in cities like Coventry and Birmingham, we advocate the investment into models that enable long-term relationships through compassionate support for struggling families, operating through the trusted school environment. This is particularly effective if it incorporates a truly integrated professional problem solving support network, properly combining mental health, substance misuse, domestic violence, employment and primary health care services, to dramatically change the life course of families in crisis without sending them on a confusing carousel of ‘signposted’ services. To make this a platinum version, this all works best when it actively empowers disenfranchised parents to become the local leaders of change; using the knowledge of their own journey escaping many of society’s imposed inequalities.

On a more universal level, the Future Generations proposal calls for a revolution on mental health support, with a focus on young people. Not necessarily through formal clinical health, but an investment in substantive and long term relationships; helping insulate from the real pressures of poverty, lack of opportunity and the other realities of hardship in many neighbourhoods in the West Midlands.

Finally, levelling up as presented here, calls for a far more ambitious package of jobs guarantees. The adult social care crisis sees too many care workers overworked and underpaid, and sometimes a correspondingly poor level of care leading to immoral and expensive health outcomes such as collapsing A&E hospital services. Then there are the other unmitigated catastrophes of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and addiction. Part of the solution then, is to tackle the large scale unemployment, health crises and failures in public health prevention strategies through a job guarantee programme that transforms the employment and care prospects of the region.

The economic opportunities need not stop here. Having helped young people avoid downward spirals through the Deal’s revolutionised pastoral support investment, we would be ready for a huge industrial awakening. This should come in the form of a programme of job guarantees in high-skilled green industries. By ambitiously stimulating a region ready for technological revolution, the West Midlands would have  a once in a lifetime opportunity to help defeat climate change through its newly invigorated labour supply.

So then, back to ‘empowerment’. A levelling up agenda should not make the West Midlands policy people wait months to discuss a proposal. Vitally, it should not make unreasonable demands about the costing of models. It is plain for all to see that the long-term cost of welfare for the unemployed, mental health services, intergenerational impacts of untreated social barriers, loss of incoming investment from national and international markets, reduced cash flow and consumer spending in West Midlands communities, the astronomical costs of crime and law enforcement and the lost economic capacity of our region’s people, should surely offer enough to embrace more dynamic decisions to empower our region and future generations.

  • About the author

    Tom McNeil

    Tom McNeil is Strategic Adviser to the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner and Policy Fellow at Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge.