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Written on 28 Sep 2021

What does levelling up mean and how can it be achieved?

New University of Cambridge publication on the UK levelling up debate.

With the recent cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of Rt Hon Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Government’s manifesto pledge to “level up” is at the top of the policy agenda. The Spending Review in late October and the publication of the long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper will keep up the momentum in this key Government programme.

To help inform this policy debate, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Cambridge, is launching a collection of essays by researchers and policymakers providing evidence on the policies needed to have a positive impact on people’s lives wherever they are in the UK.

“Levelling up started out as a Tory manifesto pledge before the pandemic which has subsequently further exposed how differently places across the UK have fared in the face of the economic and social shocks of the last 30-years. And yet levelling up remains an elusive policy programme. We created the series of short pieces over the last year to bring forward a range of different views and help shape the debate,” says Owen Garling, Knowledge Transfer Facilitator, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, who curated the levelling up blog series and anthology.

A key theme throughout the essays is the need for a blend of coordinated policies addressing different but linked challenges to deliver levelling up effectively. 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.

Collectively, these contributions point to some key insights on the levelling up concept:

First, levelling up is still to be defined; it can mean a lot of things to different people and it will take an accumulation of good understanding and investment to meet different agendas. For example, social infrastructure must be equally invested in alongside physical infrastructure for both to make a positive and sustainable impact.

Second, decisions on levelling up, spending and investment must be devolved. Local government and stakeholders know what is most needed in their local communities and regions to best fulfil their social and economic needs.

Third, everyone has a responsibility from government and policymakers to businesses, academia and community hubs, to work towards the common goal of ensuring a standard of living, wellbeing, education, employment and community for all ethnicities and ages in all places.

Fourth, people are sceptical of levelling up as just another disguise for what has already been tried and not achieved due to government incompetence and the rich wanting to stay richer.

“There is no better time, post pandemic, for all stakeholders to build forward for a prosperous and resilient future. Financial borrowing and investment is crucial. Government needs to listen to all stakeholders and give them the power to make decisions for their local and regional workforces and communities,” says Diane Coyle, Professor of Public Policy.

Contributors include: Tera Allas CBE, McKinsey; Professor Dame Athene Donald, University of Cambridge; Professor Diane Coyle, Bennett Institute for Public Policy; Marco Fellici, Bennett Institute for Public Policy; Owen Garling, Bennett Institute for Public Policy; Paul Gutherson, Centre4; Tom Kelsey, Electoral Commission; Professor Michael Kenny, Bennett Institute for Public Policy; Henry Kippin, North of Tyne Combined Authority; Dr Saite Lu, Bennett Institute for Public Policy; Dr Davide Luca, University of Cambridge;  Ben Lucas, Metro Dynamics; Ailbhe McNabola, Power to Change; Tom McNeil, Office of the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner; Catherine Miller, National Lottery Community Fund; Dr Molly Morgan-Jones, The British Academy; Dr Rehema Msulwa, Bennett Institute for Public Policy;  Dr Cristina Peñasco, University of Cambridge; Paula Surridge, University of Bristol and UK in a Changing Europe; Professor Anthony Venables, The Productivity Institute, Manchester.