Levelling Up: The Power and the Glory?


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In anticipation of the Levelling Up White Paper – promised in early 2022, in a series of articles, Trowers & Hamlins examine the challenges, opportunities and possible outcomes of the Levelling Up agenda.

Levelling Up, a key strategy of the 2019 Conservative manifesto seeks to rebalance economic disparities across the UK through a range of targeted investment interventions. However, a YouGov poll publishing on the 28 December 2021 found that only 26% of those polled knew exactly what the term means.

The poll further found that only 7% of the public believe that levelling up will result in more money for their communities and indeed 18% believed that they would get less money as a result of the fund.

The poll revealed further tension between Government’s priorities for funding interventions and that of the public. In guidance issued by Government setting out the prioritisation methodology for funding, three indicators were set out, namely 1) the need for economic recovery and growth, 2) the need for improved transport connectivity and 3) the need for regeneration. Each of the indicators where then assessed on specific metrics with allocated weightings in order to categorise local authorities based on their level of need. However, the YouGov poll found that the public’s top three indicators for prioritising the allocation of levelling up funding were areas with high poverty (60%), areas with high unemployment (56%) and those with low levels of education attainment (49%). 

Whilst the poll is only a reflection of sentiment – it does encapsulate the very real challenge to the agenda, namely how to deliver the bold ambition that it is predicated upon whilst being in-tune to local and geographical needs, which naturally differ from place to place. In later articles we will discuss those places that have articulated their ask of Government as part of the agenda, directly defining what levelling up could and should mean for them, but a number of commentators, thinktank reports  and the House of Lords Public Services Committee have agreed the agenda needs to be defined. This definition will not only assist in aligning with local needs but also establish (and help monitor) what success looks like. 

There is no argument however that part of the success will be built upon the level of funding available, how it is allocated (both to areas in need and without the administrative burden of funding competitions) and the longevity of the agenda.

On the issue of funding, a report by the Centre for Cities  set out lessons from the German reunification – a project with similar intentions, that took an estimated €2 trillion over a period of nearly 15 years (part of the funding in Germany was met by a solidarity tax on all adults – considered highly unlikely in the UK). With that level of funding simply not available and the possibility of future administration and policy changes over the coming decades – is levelling up destined to fail?

It would be easy to reach that conclusion but without the detail of the white paper – this would be a premature conclusion at this point, however the challenge is real. What is clear (and inevitable given funding parameters) is that the white paper is likely to major on structural change in governance across the public sector. This will consist of greater regional devolution and local government reform – and many local authorities are preparing plans for both in anticipation.

Whilst we await the white paper, which we hope will define the agenda with greater clarity and the precise funding on offer – the redistribution of power from the centre is inevitable as is a possible seismic reorganisation of local government. The question is, will this be enough to clarify what the agenda is, let alone deliver the ambition it is built upon? Further will this mean that the actual hard work of the agenda will be pushed to regional and local authorities already stretched from austerity and the pandemic? The answers to these questions will become clearer in the coming weeks as we read the precise details of the white paper.

Footnotes:

  1. One in four Britons have never heard of the government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ strategy | YouGov
  2. Levelling Up Fund: Prioritisation of places methodology note - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
  3. On the level: six principles to underpin the levelling up White Paper – LGIU
  4. What can German reunification teach the UK about levelling up? | Centre for Cities
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