Where is “The Level” in “Levelling Up”?

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Welcome to REDI-Updates. REDI-Updates aims to get behind the data and translate it into understandable terms. In this edition, WMREDI staff look at the government's flagship policy - Levelling Up. We look at the challenge of implementing, understanding and measuring levelling up

Josh Swan, Rebecca Riley and Hannes Read discuss the need for places to  evaluate and measure "levelling up". 

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The importance of place for levelling up

Understanding how places work is vital to levelling up. Indeed it’s important to all policies, programmes and projects which have a place impact. The revised Green Book highlights the need to carry out place impact assessments to understand place impacts and the levelling up paper reinforces this. However, the Levelling Up White Paper brings together a wide range of policies and programmes happening across government, and each has its own monitoring frameworks and outcome/output targets. Places, therefore, have to have a clear understanding of what they need to improve and what their own vision of improvement is, and their indicators should look to monitor that performance.

Places then need to actively seek out activities, funding and investment that helps them achieve that improvement. It is important that each place carries out a self-assessment of what they require to ‘level up’, both in terms of levelling up with other places but also within itself.

The White Paper missions

The missions in the White Paper cover aims in improving the orthodox economic measures such as pay, employment, productivity, research and development, transport and internet infrastructure, and skills. Something that governments for decades have pledged to improve. The White Paper puts metrics against these to reduce the geographical inequalities of these measures. The White Paper effectively condenses “the level” of “levelling up” to a minimum benchmark, of varying ambition. For example, in Mission 1, the aim is to raise pay, employment, and productivity in each area by 2030. However, achieving nominal increases is one thing, but seeing increases faster than inflation is another. Furthermore, faster improvements for the people and for the geographical areas that are lowest should be considered as successes for achieving “levelling up”, rather than just geographical areas as the White Paper focuses on.

At a local level therefore places need to work out what levels are appropriate for them across their indicators, and what performance levels they are happy with. At a national level, there is still work to be done to understand what government will measure itself by and when will it know it has achieved success in levelling up.

Measuring and evaluating “the level” of levelling up

The first issue to tackle when interpreting “levelling up” is to move away from the purely economic considerations and to recognise the importance of the social side of the economy, the White Paper has done this, but has it gone far enough?

The discourse around “levelling up” has covered a broad range of topics such as transport, wages, local government capacity, and funding for community and social initiatives. Economy and society are underpinned by local institutional capacity, productivity, sustainability, and inclusivity. “The level” of “levelling up” should be determined by agreeing and formalising a high minimum benchmark for these arrangements in every single place.

After determining a minimum benchmark, the next issue is to determine at which level of government should be held to account, at the core of levelling up is accountability to the electorate, so how can government demonstrate this? This can, in turn, determine the geographical scale that data should be collected. In many ways, the phrase “levelling up” is driven by inequality between regions, cities, towns and villages. Northern England, alongside Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, has had long-standing shortfalls in funding for transport infrastructure, wages, and research, compared to the south and east of England. In general, levelling up has been described as focusing on the ‘up’, bringing the ‘bottom-up not the ‘top-down, therefore improving things for those people and places at the most disadvantage rather than putting the brakes on those areas doing well. This means that performance should focus on targeting those that need to improve.

How do we know when we have levelled up?

As the government embarks on its levelling up agenda, one of the difficult questions will be to define and answer, ‘How do we know when we have levelled up?’ Before the release of the Government’s levelling up White Paper, data analysts and statisticians alike were particularly frustrated with identifying the point or the threshold that proclaims whether a geographical area has levelled up or is far off the mark. At this time, if one were to plot local authorities on a distribution curve based on metric performance or point to the mean, median or mode of metric performance as the benchmark for levelling up, then relatively speaking there will always be authorities that have failed to level up this year, even if their performance improved continuously year on year.

In 2022, City-REDI/ WMREDI released our City Index Dashboard, a tool that ranks England’s cities across 10 different categories currently using 55 different metrics to measure key performance. In this article, we will explore how the City Index dashboard could be used to align with the release of the government’s levelling-up white paper. The release of the Levelling Up White Paper has provided some much-needed clarity when measuring levelling up via metrics.

Geographical areas

The city index was designed before the release of the white paper, but there are few surprises from the paper in what data is used to profile each area. A major roadblock to effectively levelling up is geographical levels. It is best from an analysis point of view if the data released is at the finest possible level of spatial disaggregation. In a perfect world, that would be Local Super Output Areas (LSOAs). Lower level geographies can always be aggregated up to higher level geographies (e.g., local authority districts to regions) but not the other way around. However, this has a serious cost barrier and data is often produced at the appropriate level for the policy area (ie transport has different geography to schools and education). The city index uses local authority level data and then uses the UK Parliament’s classification of local authorities to identify cities. There is a disparity between the different geographical levels in the white paper and the single level of geography in the city index. By working with the same level of geography, comparisons are much easier to make at the local level, and by ranking each place between 0 and 1, we can objectively establish a performance table or index on how well each place is performing.

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This blog was written by Josh Swan, 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, WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

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