The devil and the detail: the issues behind the UK Levelling Up Fund

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By Johannes Read
City Region Economic and Development Institute, University of Birmingham

Although initially rooted in addressing persistent economic inequality, the phrase ‘levelling up’ and given opportunity to new conversations, such as capital projects and a focus on cycle paths to accommodate more sustainable travel. Whilst creating opportunities is important, the continued patchwork approach to funding allocation is creating bigger issues.

Whilst new funding becoming available for economic development is welcome across the country, the competitive nature of the bidding means that many places are still missing out. Local authorities, who have seen a 20% reduction in real funding since 2010, are bidding for a centralised pot of money for the opportunity to build something in their community. Of the 843 bids submitted to the Levelling Up Fund, 74% were refused. The competitive nature of the bidding process for funding – funding created to reduce regional inequality – is ironically widening the gap.

The Levelling Up Fund is like a devil on your shoulder. On the one hand shoulder, it is a welcome source of public investment money. But on the other, the complex and opaque nature of the funding is not conducive to supporting local areas with the control or resources they need to meet their ambitions.

Alongside the devil, comes the detail. The detail of how a project is put into place and integrated in the local economy is what, ultimately, matters. But, to make the most transformational impact, the funding needs to land in the pockets of the people and places that experience these inequalities in the first place. As the principles of Doughnut Economics and Community Wealth Building emphasise, the economy and funding should be inclusive by design.

Putting it in practice

Morecambe, a successful bidder for the Levelling Up Fund, brings together a strategic case for economic development. Winning £50m of funding in round 2 of the Levelling Up Fund, Morecambe has an opportunity to break into a new sector by creating the Eden Project Morecambe, a marine science visitor hub on Morecambe Bay. The project brings new chances to go beyond tourism, linking with the traineeships available at Lancaster & Morecambe College and Morecambe Bay Curriculum Lancaster University.

The practical implementation of the project does not grab headlines, but it is vitally important. The vision for an inclusive economy in the Lancaster City Council area, which includes Morecambe, is set out with the Community Wealth Building strategy in the corporate plan. This vision is put into place in two practical steps.

  1. Employment and Skills Plans: As the planning authority, Lancaster City Council can ensure contactors of large-scale projects support the upskilling and development of local workers. The Employment and Skills Plan that supported the £6m redevelopment of Lancaster University’s sports centre delivered 10 weeks of work placements to six local students, which provided 16 qualifications and two full time roles at the firm Conlon Construction. With almost ten times the funding available for Eden Project Morecambe, the potential for Employment and Skills Plans to support upskilling in Morecambe and across the country is significant.
  2. Embedding social value into the procurement process: At Lancaster City Council, social value is incorporated in the procurement strategy to ensure that large scale projects support wider objectives of climate action, community engagement, and community wealth building. The broader impacts of the project can be written into the contract to ensure monitoring, evaluation, and accountability for making a difference to the people and places that the Levelling Up Fund aims to address.

It is only by putting in place these details – ensuring the economic vision works with the strengths of a local area and implementing an Employment and Skills Plan and social value procurement strategy – that local authorities can hope to ensure the benefits of the Levelling Up Fund reach all corners of their community.

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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