A Trowers levelling up publication: Local government's central role
The Levelling Up White Paper is undoubtedly impressive in its scope and analysis.
It reads as an overwhelmingly comprehensive rationale for reform and a framework for implementing a policy agenda that outweighs the breadth of any white paper in recent history. It takes some new approaches to delivering central government policy with new focus around medium term missions, modern categorisations of capital and a host of new Levelling Up committees, councils, directors and more.
The White Paper is brimming with local government content, either with “local government” on the label (e.g. devolution) or other key areas where local government are the key ingredient to the success of the proposed outcome. Looking at the focus areas: education, skills, wellbeing, transport, housing and regeneration and not to mention the overall interaction with Central Government of how well “Levelling Up” is going, the effect of Levelling Up will be palpable on local government decision making as Central Government seeks to draw on the relationships that councils hold with local residents and key stakeholders.
A big development in the White Paper is with regards to devolution, rather than the somewhat opaque and piecemeal process to date, the Government is now proposing a framework for devolution which sets out indicative conditions with associated powers and funding that comes along with them. The past decade has seen devolution in England focus on metropolitan areas, whereas the approach outlined in the White Paper opens up the prospect of devolution deals beyond "functional economic areas" to "whole county geographies" or single large unitary. Some notable parameters to devolution deals are that they should not isolate nearby (non-participating) areas and the combined population should be at least 500,000. This approach underlines the White Paper's focus on local identity and place.
In the run-up to the publication of the White Paper there was a collective anxiety that local government reorganisation would be imposed as a precursor to devolution. This has not been the case, and instead the indicative framework includes 3 levels of devolution in recognition of different levels of accountability including:
Level 1 – local authorities working across a functioning economic area or whole county together;
Level 2 – County/institution with no mayor working across a functioning economic area or whole county; and
Level 3 – County/institution with Mayor working across the functioning economic area or whole county.
This keeps the focus on the maximum devolution only where there is a democratically accountable leader, something many authorities have held back from. That county deals without mayors are expressly permitted will be welcomed by the non-metropolitan areas that have resisted the idea of metropolitan mayors.
Whilst the framework rewards areas having an elected mayor (required by Level 3) the nine new county deals to be negotiated mean the areas of England covered by at least a “Level 2” devolution deal is expected to increase significantly.
With a more transparent framework for devolution, authorities not yet entering the formal discussions on a deal will no doubt be expected to at least consider the prospect. With nine county deals progressing as we speak and the Government hoping some to conclude in Autumn 2022, there will be more good examples to look at.
Interface between local government and Whitehall
The White Paper introduces the Levelling Up Advisory Council, Levelling Up directors, a Levelling Up Cabinet Committee and a new independent body focussing on data transparency and accountability for local government (the new data body). The new data body’s role in the White Paper is only afforded a single ambitious page of content. It will take inspiration from the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework, which records metrics similar to some of the Levelling Up missions and does enable an easy tracking of data.
However, the new data body’s aims are broader, to empowering citizens, strengthening local leaders’ knowledge of their own services and sharing best practice, as well as the pivotal body in administering the “accountability framework” to report to central government.
To truly achieve these aims, especially to provide more qualitative knowledge sharing between local government, requires a much deeper qualitative level of data collection, which must be properly resourced and represent value for the time and money invested. Shared knowledge is always welcome, and a more structured approach to this appears to be gaining traction, including in other areas such as public procurement, however it has to be user friendly and not distill information beyond what is useful.
The White Paper says this body will be co-designed with local government, so we look forward to meaningful engagement to ensure the new data body and particularly the new “accountability framework” caters to local government’s needs and allows for local priorities and achievements to shine through even if they differ from nationally set ones.
The Levelling Up Advisory Council is stated to advise ministers on the design of delivery and impact of Levelling up and seemingly form sub-groups and committees that are not explicitly stated to interact with local government, but seeks to advise with respect to unlocking to private sector side of delivery. More closely aligned to local government, the Levelling Up directors appear to fulfill an interface role between the national strategic objectives and local leaders. Their responsibilities and skills are not yet clear but will matter to local government, as to whether there will be any formal reporting process or approvals sought between the two, especially given this would be an unelected official potentially appointed by Central Government.
The main criticism of the Levelling Up White Paper has been with regards to it not being backed by any newly announced funding, so far relying on previously announced Shared Prosperity Fund, Levelling Up and Towns Funds to deliver Levelling Up. We have produced an analysis of the SPF in the article here. But overall, local government will look to the missions and timescales with a critical eye as to what can reasonably be delivered on current budgets. As allocations of the SPF are made, without competition, authorities will need to draw up local investment plans as to how to strategically spend that cash. We expect that officers will become well versed in the new expressions on the business cases or similar forms which will now refer to the 12 missions and 6 forms of capital. Whether these different categorisations will achieve better outcomes will most likely depend on the quality of strategic decisions, information and data which informs them, all of which will take time.
With an 8 year timescale for delivering on the 12 missions it remains an ambitious, albeit “medium term” framework. With elections intervening the medium term missions, it is hopeful that the benefits of longer term timescales can be retained where changes in political direction can often lead to changes in priorities.
We look at these proposals optimistically and hope that all the work in implementing these new processes, approaches and organisations will do more than just window dressing of the status quo. We hope this framework will facilitate locally-driven solutions and this period of consultation enables local governments across the country to take up their central role in shaping and delivering the framework that they will deliver against.