The Devil and the Detail: The Two Things Hiding Behind the UK Levelling Up Fund

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Whilst the Levelling Up Fund provides much-needed support for local regions, Hannes Read discusses two issues with the programme. The patchwork delivery of funding and a lack of focus on how the funds are spent.

The continued patchwork approach to regional economic development is the devil behind the Levelling Up Fund. Despite the roots of the phrase ‘levelling up’ looks at addressing persistent economic inequalities, the term gave the opportunity to discuss a wide range of topics, including capital projects and building new cycle paths. Of course, support to improve those things is important and necessary. The 12 levelling up ‘missions’ put some metrics and definitions behind the slogan. But, whilst the relative merits and drawbacks have been discussed at length, there are bigger issues at play. Despite the welcome funding becoming available, the patchwork approach to public investment, where funding comes from competitive bids which means many places miss out, remains.

In amongst the novelty and discussion around the Levelling Up Fund, a big oversight is being made. Local authorities, who have had a 20% reduction in real funding since 2010, are bidding for a centralised pot of money for the opportunity to build something in their area. 74% of the 834 bids submitted were not accepted. But, ironically, the competitive funding nature of funding to reduce inequalities, is still creating a gap between winners and losers. This patchwork approach to funding.

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 patchwork approach to funding is not conducive to supporting local areas with the control or resources to realise the ambitions they have.

Detailing the Issues

Alongside the devil, comes the detail. The detail of how a project is put into place and integrated into 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.

Local authorities can have a significant influence to reduce inequalities and maximise the impact of levelling up funding. The detail is not seen in the headline funding announcements. Rather, this goes on in an iterative, detailed process to maximise the overall aims of the Levelling Up Fund.

Detailing the Vision

This section will outline that whilst Morecambe’s successful Levelling Up Fund bid brings together a strategic case for economic development, it is the practical process of how the plan is put in place that makes the difference. Morecambe was one of the places to win funding in Round 2 of the Levelling Up Fund. They won £50m for Eden Project Morecambe, a marine science visitor hub on Morecambe Bay. The coming Eden Project Morecambe is an opportunity for Morecambe to move beyond tourism and break into a science-led, learning-based economic path. The Eden Education Strategy links Morecambe Bay, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, with traineeships at Lancaster & Morecambe College and Morecambe Bay Curriculum Lancaster University. 

Putting the Vision into Practice

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.

The first is through Employment and Skills Plans. As the planning authority, Lancaster City Council can ensure contractors of large-scale projects support the upskilling and development of local workers working on site. 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.

Second is the importance of social value being embedded into the procurement process. At Lancaster City Council, social value is incorporated into 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; to ensure the economic vision works with the strengths of a local area, and implement an Employment and Skills Plan and social value procurement strategy that can divert the benefits of the Levelling Up Fund to the people and places that the fund aims to support.

  • The strategic case for the project must include a link to the future economic vision. Every place has strengths and disadvantages. Connecting the economic strengths to the strengths of a place and the challenges to address will bring together the whole vision.
  • Planning permissions only be signed off with an Employment and Skills Plan to show how contractors will employ and upskill local workers.
  • Embedding a social value weighting into the procurement of projects to ensure additional value is created for the people who live and work in the local area.

This blog was written by Hannes Read, Policy and Data Analyst, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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