How International Success Factors Can Accelerate Levelling Up in the UK

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Jeffrey Matsu, Chief Economist at CIPFA, explains how levelling up in the UK can be accelerated if we look at and apply levelling up success factors from Cleveland, Fukuoka, Nantes and Leipzig.

We often look to others to understand ourselves better. If we want to improve and develop, whether professionally or personally, it can be good to examine our peers and counterparts to help take stock of what is going well, where there is room for improvement and maybe even highlight things we didn’t even know we were doing, or not doing.

Evening out the stark social and economic inequalities between regions in England is a huge policy, funding and delivery challenge for local authorities and their civic partners and so looking elsewhere at what has worked is a useful strategy and starting point.

CIPFA’s 2022 research conducted with the University of Birmingham’s City-REDI took a close look at four international cities — Cleveland, Fukuoka, Nantes and Leipzig — and identified nine common factors that were key to their levelling up successes. These range from political will and partnerships to long-term investment to monitoring and evaluation.

10 levelling up success factors:

  • Shared political will and partnerships
  • Clear strategy and vision
  • Investing for the long-term
  • Local knowledge
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Adapting national frameworks to address local needs
  • Diversification
  • Key players
  • Adequate and responsive funding
  • Transferable learning and knowledge exchange

Together with our colleagues at Birmingham, we wanted to apply this learning to the English context and see which success factors were in evidence, what was and was not working well and identify the barriers that might be hindering progress.

We again chose four case study areas: two from city-regions — Dudley in the West Midlands and Enfield in Greater London — and two mayoral combined authorities — South Yorkshire and Tees Valley.

Following interviews with a range of key players from the relevant local authorities and the broader local economy, we found evidence of all nine success factors and also identified a tenth that appears to be important in the English context — transferable learning and knowledge exchange.

For example, the contribution of key players is demonstrated in Dudley where Dudley College has played a vital role in driving economic development locally. In Enfield, they are investing for the long term through the flagship Meridian Water housing scheme. Strong shared political will locally, sub-regionally and regionally is helping the London borough transcend traditional local authority lines. South Yorkshire’s strategy is informed by a clear and distinctive focus on health and wellbeing, championed by the mayor, while towns in the Tees Valley are diversifying their economic bases away from traditional heavy industries towards the digital and creative sectors and, in Darlington, the civil service via a multi-department government hub.

So there is much to take heart in. There are , however, a range of common weaknesses and challenges that we found across the case study areas.

Unsurprisingly for a sector under immense financial strain, much of this relates to funding. When set against international counterparts, funding in England is insufficient and does not meet local ambitions. Underfunding creates a series of downward spirals limiting the capacity of local government to address regional inequalities. It’s also too short-term, fragmented and inflexible.

Shifting to a single-pot funding model would offer local authorities greater flexibility to respond to local priorities and plan for the long term. Moves toward single pot funding for Manchester and the West Midlands were announced in the Autumn Statement but it would be good to see the approach deployed beyond these two major cities.

Capacity constraints also posed a huge challenge for our four English case studies. Local authorities do not have the in-house resources they need to bid for funding and, importantly, conduct monitoring and evaluation activity – itself an important success factor. Until capacity recovers, local authorities should be more strategic in what they seek to evaluate. Co-commissioning evaluation activities across authorities offers an opportunity to streamline resources.

Working with partners, and across different levels of government, is also important and presents further opportunities to pool knowledge and expertise and learn collective lessons.

Finally, learning is important and clearly valued, but often crowded out by more pressing priorities. A welcome shift for 2024 would be a local government system that promotes and protects collective learning.

This blog was written by Jeffrey Matsu, Chief Economist at CIPFA.

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

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