Rebecca Riley recently appeared on a panel session hosted by The Policy Institute at Kings College London. In this blog, she discusses how Levelling Up should be about giving people the capacity, confidence, and courage to drive change. This article was first posted on the UK in a Changing Europe blog.
It isn’t a new problem
The first thing to highlight is levelling up is not a new problem. Successive governments have tried and failed to a greater and lesser degree to solve it. Although the label of the policy approach has changed the disparities between places have remained. Levelling Up should be looking to tackle long-term persistent structural issues embedded in places left behind by the demise of heavy industry. Still, political change makes it very difficult to embed long-term change.
Therefore, successive governments have introduced various programmes and policies to tackle this, with varying focus and operational approaches. From the 1920s Industrial Transference scheme, the urban agenda in the 1960s, City Deals, Government Offices and Regional Development Agencies in the 1990s to the competitive funding we have now Levelling Up.
As seen in the chart below (SQW 2019) there has been a plethora of interventions since the late 90s alone.
However, there is often a disjoint between what people see on the ground and want “fixing”, which are often dealt with through small pots of money and ‘quick fixes’, versus the things which need to happen to change places in the long term. This is a difficult balancing act for the government and is seen in the UK In a Changing Europe report, by King’s College London on what people think.
What have we learned from all this activity though?
To improve places we need consistent and coherent funding over the long term to change large-scale structural issues and it’s not about small pots of hanging basket competitive investment.
Andy Haldane mentioned losers in his opening speech and in WM there were over 110 bids in round 1 of Levelling Up and only 11 were funded, that’s time and investment, potentially £3.3m, that could be better spent. Local authorities, who have had a 20% reduction in real funding since 2010, are bidding into a centralised pot of money for the opportunity to develop something in their area. 74% of the 834 bids submitted nationally were not funded.
The nature of competitive funding is still creating a gap between winners and losers when funding should be inclusive by design. Across both rounds of Levelling Up funds, whilst most of the funding went to ‘left behind’ regions, it did not necessarily go to the most deprived areas within them. For instance, for those in the least deprived Local Authority grouping, 300+ had a per capita spend of £544.62, whilst LAs in the most deprived grouping (1 to 50) had the lowest spend per capita of £57.75. Constant change and new funds are causing confusion in the system, making it difficult to navigate for people, businesses and the public sector, institutional reorganisation is further compounding it.
Local institutions don’t have the levers they need, to deliver levelling up, they lack the decision-making powers, budgetary capacity and institutional capabilities to make transformative policy interventions in the drivers of productivity. Some important areas of delivery local organisations have no control over at all, such as skills and education. Outcomes are often set within the context of past performance and path dependency, which places find difficult to shake. This raises the importance of investing in the knowledge and confidence of the leaders to take strategic decisions, for them to have agency in how they deliver and creativity in what they define as responses to challenges.
The North to South Divide
Levelling Up is not merely a North-South issue either. It is a story of hyper-local disparities that may be disguised at the national level, and which data does not always reveal. The lived experience of the people in place testifies to this, a recent policy forum we held looking at ‘Pride in Place’ emphasised this. Places are intangible and need strong partnerships and leadership, which need to be based on a human-centred approach to developing interventions. Hence, alongside broader structural factors, local approaches to understanding both the quantitative impacts and the qualitative lived realities are essential to understand to tackle ‘levelling up’.
Levelling Up should be about giving people the capacity, confidence, and courage to drive change. Providing a public investment in place, helps businesses and people to gain the confidence to invest for themselves. There is a lack of this understanding in current public policy.
What should come next?
Based on our evidence:
- Put the investment where it’s needed, enact the findings of the levelling up analysis and utilise the wealth of evidence there is to design interventions and tackle issues. Move away from piloting to changing the mainstream.
- End the lurching from competitive programme to programme and streamline into long-term investments, to reduce the waste in public resources from bidding. Streamlining funding in skills, innovation, enterprise, and infrastructure, which should be based on need and delivered through local structures with local accountability.
- Adapt national frameworks and put in place processes to trace the combined impacts of place funding, so we can understand and measure the success of programmes.
- This will provide confidence to the markets, businesses, and local people in the long-term investment in place (even if it is small to start).
- Help places develop the confidence, skills and expertise needed to drive change locally, develop evidence and evaluation skills and encourage learning from others.
What will be next?
- The mission targets do not match against departmental targets, so until they are aligned progress will be piecemeal.
- The ethos of levelling up could be lost in the political debate and instability in the run-up to the election.
- The danger is that a new government wants something different to distance itself from the previous government, or rename the policy but the focus is lost when the issues remain the same.
You can see all the work City-REDI/WMREDI have done on Levelling up here.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.