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Written on 28 Sep 2021 by Owen Garling

There is not one single approach to levelling up

An understanding of the complexity and connections between different places', communities’, and sectors' deficits and assets is central to levelling up.

When we launched our levelling up blog series in early 2021, our intention was to publish a series of short pieces to help stimulate the emerging debate about levelling up. We also wanted to take the opportunity to provide a platform for a wide range of different voices, including researchers, policymakers and thinkers, to explore these questions from their own perspective.

In the run up to the Spending Review and the much-anticipated Levelling Up White Paper in October 2021, we are pleased to bring together a number of these different pieces in an anthology of levelling up. Publishing these blogs together in an anthology enables them to talk to each other and for a number of common themes to emerge.

Since the Conservative election victory in 2019 the idea of levelling up has caught the attention of the political establishment and voters. A recent graph published by the Northern Agenda showed how the expression has taken its place as the latest in the line of soundbites used by parliamentarians, following in the footsteps of the ‘Big Society’ and ‘Northern Powerhouse.’

The Northern Agenda

Our recent polling paper, What matters to the English after Covid?, produced in partnership with the YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research, found that amongst English people, levelling up “is a popular idea in the abstract [my italics].” The survey found that two-thirds (68 per cent) of English people felt that it should be a high or medium priority for the UK government.

However, the polling data also demonstrates that in practice, levelling up is viewed differently in different parts of England. Asked whether levelling up would be good or bad for their local economy, there was a marked North-South difference in response.

You Gov Chart
‘Get levelling up done’

Spatial inequalities are a feature of all modern economies.  As Professor Tony Venables points out in his piece:

Economic development is never a uniform process, affecting all places in the country at the same rate.”

Whilst there are always some places that are doing well, there are also always those that are struggling. This is not a new phenomenon, and a recent project at the University of Cambridge has used census data to demonstrate how these inequalities have been in place and affecting people’s lives for over at least the last 170 years.

In one of the pieces, Professor Michael Kenny and I look back at the history of regional policy over the last 80 years and interpret levelling up as the latest incarnation of a longstanding, and mostly unfulfilled, aspiration to tackle these significant divergences in the economic fortunes and prospects of the country’s regions and nations. We argue that an understanding of this history is essential for an understanding of the scale of the challenge that levelling up faces.

For a set of problems that have developed over such a long timeframe, we might expect that policy solutions may also take time to deliver practical solutions. And yet, there is a political imperative to ‘get things done’, driven in part by the electoral timetable and the need for politicians to demonstrate results, as well as by the changing make-up of the ‘red wall’ seats as outlined in our collection by Paula Surridge.

Levelling up also presents an opportunity to engage people in thinking about the future of the places where they live. In her contribution, Catherine Miller outlines how the National Lottery’s Emerging Futures Fund has worked with communities to shape the future narrative of the places that they call home. This vital and yet perhaps not fully understood, goal of restoring a sense of pride in place and feelings of agency in communities is an area that merits more attention, particularly as we move through a period of structural change towards net zero.

Any approach to levelling up will need to acknowledge the inherent tension in the timescales of the different types of change required and ensure that the policy programme is able to deliver both the ‘quick wins’ needed for political expediency, as well as the long, slow structural change that is also required. It is not a question of ‘either/or’ but rather of ‘both/and,’ all of which needs to be set within the context of the Covid Decade as outlined by Dr Molly Morgan Jones.

Place is the space

As well as understanding levelling up’s place in temporal terms, it is also vital to understand its place in spatial ones. The ability to understand and act on the local circumstances of different places is essential to the success of levelling up. It is the connections and complementarities within places – and between them – that will enable policies to take root successfully. Everywhere is different, and without a deep understanding of the differences (and similarities) between places, any policy will be likely to fail.

The knowledge of how places function is generally held locally and so an obvious conclusion is that decisions need to be made at the most appropriate level, using local know-how, and involving those who the decisions will affect. As Tom McNeil points out in his piece on the West Midlands, 'real' empowerment to level up might come from government policy that has been shaped, designed and even made by the regions themselves.

The chapter on the local context engages with the work that is already taking place across the country, from Barrow-in-Furness to Cambridge, and from Grimsby to the West Midlands. What unites all of these places is an understanding that solutions need to be developed and tested locally, and that there is not one approach, or single set of policy levers that will work the same everywhere. What is important is that ideas are shared, and contexts understood.

Questions of scale

Differences between and within places look very different depending on the geographical scale we use to look at the problem. Zoom out too far and the focus can be on an overly simplistic North-South divide; zoom in too close and the problem becomes hyper-local and subject to the kind of variance that policy finds hard to manage.

In her piece, Tera Allas considers the data that is available to help inform the levelling up agenda. She notes:

The good news is that there is a lot of good data around. The challenge is to see the patterns and make sense of them, given the complexity of the socioeconomic factors at play.”

Governance arrangements also differ at different levels of geography in the UK. From the difference of approaches between England and the devolved nations, to the hotchpotch of arrangements in England involving Combined Authorities in some areas, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), county, district and unitary councils, to the emerging arrangements in place for health, governance is a complicated territory.

Levelling up needs to take this into account and acknowledge that whilst some projects, such as infrastructure projects like HS2 may best be managed at a national level, other initiatives, such as social infrastructure, need to be led by the most appropriate level of governance for the scale of the intervention.

In her piece on the role of infrastructure investment, Dr Rehema Msulwa highlights the importance of long-term strategic planning to enable this, and also notes that:

The UK’s National Infrastructure Strategy is a step in this direction. However, there is still a way to go in terms of coordination across different infrastructure sectors and alignment across geographic spatial scales.”

Crucial to this, and often missing from discussions, is the importance of ensuring that there is connectivity between different levels of governance. Rather than a hierarchical ‘pyramid’, the governance arrangements underpinning levelling up should be seen as a web of inter-related activity.

Get on your bike or stay at home?

Finally, what does our anthology say about the blend of policies that will be required to level up the country?

Ultimately levelling up is a discussion over whether policy should follow in the example of the World Bank and be ‘space-blind’ or follow the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and take a more ‘place-based’ approach. In reality, of course, it is not a question of one or the other, but more about understanding the most appropriate mix of the two and how this may vary from place to place.

Consider, for example, the question of jobs. As Professor Tony Venables so clearly states in his piece:

In broad terms there are two mechanisms [to drive regional convergence]; one is that people move to places where there are jobs, and the other is that jobs move to places where there are people.”

However, neither of these approaches are as straightforward as they sound. The first of these drivers is slow to operate and can actually exacerbate the problems of regional disparity. Think, for example of the huge migrations of people from the countryside to towns during the Industrial Revolution. This same movement of young, well-educated people to urban areas is one of the reasons many cite for the ‘hollowing out’ of ‘left-behind’ places.

Moving jobs to places where people are – which one could see as a key objective of levelling up – is also not straightforward. In the UK, the regional wage gaps are often not large enough to encourage firms to move and invest, and those factors where there is a gap, such as lower land and office rents, play a much smaller part in firms’ costs. Also, firms exist as part of a local business ecosystem. To move requires a firm to leave behind the services that this ecosystem provides in the hope that there is a similar ecosystem that they can join in the place that they are moving to.

These difficulties illustrate why levelling up needs to move beyond a purely economic focus and include those other factors that have an influence on economic activities in a place, such as the assets, skills, infrastructure, and strengths of different communities and the places they inhabit.

Central to our anthology is a discussion on the blend of policies that can most effectively deliver levelling up. These range from the role of major infrastructure investments for mobilising the workforce and goods, and the role of social infrastructure in making places more attractive and healthier to live and work, to the role of education in building human capital and digital access. An understanding of the complexity and connections between all of the different deficits and assets is central to any approach to level up.

Looking forward

Nine months on from the launch of our levelling up blog series, the issues discussed in this anthology remain as relevant as ever.

The appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for the freshly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the recent cabinet reshuffle, and the appointment of Andy Haldane as the Head of the government’s Levelling Up Taskforce indicates a renewed focus from the centre of government on the need to ‘get levelling up done’ and inject a sense of momentum and purpose in this area

We will continue to contribute to these discussions, both through the ongoing curation of this blog series, and through the Bennett Institute’s programme of research.

  • 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