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Will levelling up be “a moral, social and economic programme for the whole of government”?

 

Debbie Pippard reflects on the Levelling Up White Paper and what it might mean for regional and in-region inequalities

Following the recent publication of the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper, those concerned about the differences in opportunity, resources and wellbeing that people experience merely because of where they live in the UK, have had an opportunity to digest its contents.  We’ve identified three things we like and three things we’re concerned about, and have done a round up of responses from those we work with.

First, it’s good to see a major strategy that seeks to tackle the deeply rooted disparities between different areas of the country (and for short history on just how deeply rooted those differences are, and a run through previous attempts to address them, check out https://www.politico.eu/westminster-insider-podcast/).  The White Paper is a serious attempt to address the problem and we welcome the recognition that reducing inequalities is a moral duty as well as an economic and social necessity.  Few of us would disagree with the 12 missions it sets out, or with the acknowledgement that it is a long-term project that will require sustained focus across several political cycles to be fully realised.

Systems change to tackle regional inequalities

Second, the authors recognise that making different areas of the country more equal requires systems change across a whole raft of different issues, not just short term fixes from one department or another.  The White Paper lists six types of capital (physical, human, intangible, financial, social and institutional) all of which must be present if communities are to thrive and we agree that any lasting change has to be about the interrelationship of all those things.  Making the reporting of progress a statutory duty increases the prospects of focussing ministerial and departmental minds on action, and makes it more difficult to dismantle.

 Third, increased devolution means that those who know their local places best can identify and work on priorities that matter most locally.  However, devolution is not enough – it must be accompanied by redistribution from wealthier to poorer areas or those with less will remain stuck in a vicious cycle.  Unsurprisingly the emphasis is on stimulating and supporting the private sector as a main route to levelling up, though we would have liked to see more about the importance of a thriving foundational economy and the role of social enterprise.  As an organisation with roots in Birmingham we were pleased to see that one of the three proposed ‘Innovation Accelerators’ will be in the West Midlands.

Structural inequalities within areas

However, on the flip side of the coin, there is not enough about differences within places, which can be as great or greater as those between different parts of the UK.  Some of the places that fit the vision in the White Paper of being ‘home to skilled people with high quality jobs… outstanding schools…competitive universities…fine housing’ (Oxford or Cambridge spring to mind) are still places where people struggle to make a living and sometimes die on the streets.  We need levelling up across the UK, but we also need attention to the support needed by individual people and much stronger recognition and eradication of the structural inequalities linked to the intersection between poverty and protected characteristics such as gender, race and disability.   That will need an injection of public funds as well as a recognition of and sustained focus on eliminating those structural inequalities which arise from who we are – and the value society places on different groups of people – not what we do.  

The need for ongoing evaluation 

The paper sets out a number of targets. Some of these are too vague to be meaningful, others are numeric but very ambitious.  They will need to be clarified and refined over time, perhaps with targets being set by local areas with the centre ensuring that the individual contributions add up to a step change in each reporting period.  We have a long history of attempts to address regional disparities, but as the National Audit Office so painfully pointed out, too little has been spent on learning about what works.  This ambitious plan and its long term nature lends itself well to ongoing evaluation so that central Government and local players can learning from different approaches that will be taken across the country.

Finally, of course, there is a question of whether the funding that will be needed will be made available, and whether the priority the current administration puts on this policy will stick when there is a change of leadership – whether that comes soon or in a few years’ time.  Putting a requirement to report on a statutory footing and establishing a high profile Advisory Council will help ensure longevity but the first few years, during which time the architecture of devolution and other structures will be put in place, will be crucial. 

Further reading

And if you want to read more about putting policy into practice our partners provide plenty of further reading:

Debbie Pippard is Director of Programmes at Barrow Cadbury Trust