System change, levelling-up, and courageous policy objectives

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By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham

The current economic strategy is based on economic growth, but levelling-up involving system change must be driven by an emphasis on ‘responsible inclusive prosperity’.

Levelling-up is one of the current political mantras focussing on reducing inequalities and encouraging the emergence of a more ‘level’ society. This represents a courageous policy ambition that is unlikely to achieve any significant societal or spatial rebalancing; place-based inequalities are a persistent feature of all societies. The ambition must be to mediate the impacts of these inequalities rather than any attempt to remove them or to make radical adjustments based on narrowing the gap between the worst and best performing areas.

There are four reasons why the levelling-up agenda may not realise its vision for the United Kingdom by 2030. First, there are only eight years to meet 12 bold, national missions. The impacts of the levelling-up agenda will occur over decades and not just over eight years.

The levelling-up agenda must include major enhancements in the quality of the country’s educational system. Meeting the levelling-up agenda will be constrained by problems with educational provision in the past. Any attempt to enhance skills, productivity and pay will be hampered by the population’s existing capabilities.

Second, any levelling-up agenda would require cross-party support with agreements in place regarding continuity of policy development, implementation, and evaluation. This includes aligning local and national government to ensure that an integrated approach is developed. This type of integrated and long-term approach would be highly unusual in the UK as politicians tend to meddle with policy rather than accept that a policy’s impacts might take decades to materialise.

Third, place-based differences are central to the levelling-up agenda. Thus, the White Paper wants to ensure that the country’s local public transport system becomes much closer to London standards. One could query using London as the benchmark, but in any case, every place has a unique bundle of assets, and this includes distinct forms of regional, national, and international connectivity. Newcastle can never be London and London can never be Newcastle. No matter what types of investment are made then place-based differences that result in regional inequality will persist. Levelling-up policy interventions might have perverse impacts and even intensify place-based differentials producing new forms of disadvantage.

Fourth, one element of the levelling-up agenda is to ensure that the large majority of the country gains access to 5G broadband. 5G provides access to faster mobile communications which will underpin major innovations in electronic devices and related services. This will facilitate disruptive innovations in self-driving vehicles, virtual reality appliances, telemedicine, telesurgery and remote surveillance. There are two risks here. On the one hand, the ambition is that most of the country will gain access, but which areas will be disadvantaged? On the other hand, our socio-economic systems are becoming over reliant on wireless technology.

Such technology comes with benefits and risks. The risks include the development of complex systems in which any minor failure has the potential to ricochet across the systems of intertwined systems making it impossible to estimate the negative impacts of what might be a very simple fault. People could die because of over-reliance on web-based systems, and this includes the potential for a cyber-attack resulting in total systemic failure. Access to 5G will become a necessary part of everyday living, but the key challenge is to reduce and remove the risks and to enhance societal resilience.

Levelling-up must be undertaken in the context of climate change and this must include rapid decarbonisation of everyday living. This requires radical behavioural change. There is a danger that the levelling-up agenda is based on premises that relate to carbon-intensive lifestyles rather than carbon-light living. The implication being that levelling-up must include a process of levelling-down carbon-intensive lifestyles. The future must be radically different from the past and all living in the UK must appreciate that it is time to focus on reducing waste, enhancing energy efficiency, and reducing or even removing unnecessary travel. This includes a renewed focus on creating liveable neighbourhoods encouraging walking and cycling.

The current economic strategy is based on economic growth, but levelling-up involving system change must be driven by an emphasis on ‘responsible inclusive prosperity’. This must be ‘responsible’ as any interventions must enhance outcomes for the current time and for the future. It must be ‘inclusive’ with an emphasis on equal opportunities for all, but realistic in accepting that place-based inequalities will persist. Prosperity must be the focus rather than growth, as continuous growth is never a long-term sustainable, or even responsible, objective.

A final point is that the levelling-up agenda will be supported by a Levelling-Up Advisory Council. The danger is that its membership will include a significant proportion of economists rather than economic geographers or place-based experts. The levelling-up agenda requires an appreciation that geographers and regional scientists must play a significant role in shaping policy outcomes intended to moderate the impacts of place-based inequalities. The key is to develop a pragmatic approach resulting in achievable outcomes informed by experts in place.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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