So there we have it. Two years and a global pandemic later, the government’s detailed plan for levelling up has finally arrived. Running at some 350 pages, the White Paper starts with a lengthy analysis of different forms of place-based inequalities before offering some pertinent thoughts about why despite numerous initiatives from governments of different stripes over the years, levelling up (or regional rebalancing as it used to be called) has failed. On this point, it rightly identifies five shortcomings of past policy approaches:
A. longevity and policy sufficiency;
b. policy and delivery coordination;
c. local empowerment;
d. evidence, monitoring and evaluation; and
e. transparency and accountability.
These are a very good place to start when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the White Paper and the government’s broader approach and commitment to levelling up.
Longevity and policy sufficiency
A White Paper is never going to achieve longevity, but it does set out a commitment to making levelling up a decade long effort with ambitious missions to be achieved by 2030. This Prime Minister has made levelling up his flagship policy agenda because of the political imperative of maintaining the votes from former Red Wall constituencies. There are serious questions about whether levelling up can survive beyond this Parliament or even a change of Conservative leadership. The Treasury’s refusal to provide substantial new funds to accompany the White Paper suggests hesitance at the heart of government to fully commit to this agenda.
The government’s missions show that they understand the scale and problem and that focusing only on headline economic outcomes like productivity or unemployment will not be enough to level up. Economic and social challenges are intrinsically linked so it is right that levelling up should focus on delivering good jobs as well as better health, education, and skills in particularly. However, there are so many missions, it may be difficult for the government to remain focussed in their policy ideas and delivery.
While the white paper is an ambitious statement of intent, there is no clear vision of how the government will get there or a commitment to public investment on the scale necessary to make some progress. Comparisons could be made to New Labour’s Health Inequalities Strategy which ran for over a decade. That was a cross-government effort with new investment and a focus on 70 left behind “Spearhead” areas (the White Paper announced 55 Education Investment Areas). The result of that was a moderate reduction in health inequalities. The obvious lesson is that doing this stuff is hard and requires substantial cash to shift the dial even modestly.
Policy and delivery coordination
The White Paper signals good intent in this area though clearly a mammoth coordination effort will be required. Getting this far on levelling up has already required a substantial cross-government effort, with departments having to justify how their policies will contribute towards the agenda. It therefore marks the beginning of a reshaping in the way civil servants are thinking about policy which needs to be embedded over the long term. In this sense, the levelling up agenda has already moved way beyond the Big Society. Within the White Paper, there is a broad commitment to improve the coordination of central government’s efforts at a local level helped through the creation of so-called Levelling Up Directors who are supposed to act as a single point of contact for local leaders. Also welcome is the acknowledgement of a complex funding landscape with multiple different funding pots and a commitment to making it all simpler.
This is the most radical part of the White Paper. Nine areas will be invited to negotiate mayoral deals - Cornwall, Derbyshire & Derby, Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, Durham, Hull & East Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire & Nottingham, and Suffolk. And it makes a commitment for every part of England to have a London-style deal by 2030 if they want one. For existing Mayoral Combined Authorities there is a commitment to provide further powers. As expected, new devolution deals will most likely be for functioning economic areas and that the council or group of councils must have a combined population of over 500,000.
Alongside new powers, there needs to be a clear accountability framework – something the White Paper commits to but doesn’t say much else on. The only concrete proposal here is a new “independent body in England focused on data, transparency, and robust evidence”. The idea behind this is to support councils to learn from one another and self-identify areas for improvement while giving citizens the relevant information to hold their leaders to account. CPP are currently working on a new framework for mayoral combined authority accountability.
Whether devolution will also be accompanied by additional financial resource remains to be seen as battles between No.10, DLHUK and the Treasury continue. But therein lies a big potential problem in holding new leaders to account. Given the lack of new funding commitments in the White Paper, financial resources are likely to remain very stretched. This poses big questions - for instance, can elected mayors of places with high levels of deprivation be held accountable for the health of their populations if the public health grant is lower today than it was in 2015-16?
Evidence, monitoring and evaluation
Before the White Paper was published, the National Audit Office raised concerns about the effectiveness of the Levelling up Fund and Town’s Fund. They said that “the government’s policies to stimulate local economic growth are not consistently based on evidence of what interventions are likely to be most effective, increasing the risk that billions of pounds awarded to local bodies will not deliver the intended benefits”. Unfortunately, it’s not clear from the White Paper whether the numerous listed initiatives do have a clear evidence base in terms of how these different activities will actually reduced regional inequalities. This may be because they are largely recycled policies from the Spending Review, but still there is no published evidence about which are most/least likely to succeed and therefore which require prioritisation.
There is (as noted above) a commitment to create a new data and evidence body for local areas. The White Paper also notes working with the ONS to support monitoring. One of the important data developments in recent times – partially driven by the levelling up agenda - is the ONS exploring how best to collect and analyse local data. The ONS’ new subnational indicators explorer is a particularly useful tool in that regard.
Transparency and accountability
This is one area where the White Paper could be most helpful. Finally, we have detail on what levelling up is and success metrics against which to hold government to account. This is a significant step forward. Nevertheless, some of the missions are so ambitious that, for all the best will and financial support, they will never be achieved in the given timeframe. Take healthy life expectancy for instance, which the white paper wants to increase by 5 years by 2035. On current trend, this will take 75 years.
Others are very vague – “by 2030, well-being will have improved in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing”. On this point, wellbeing is left entirely undefined. But at least we have some useful measures of success.
 For a summary of New Labour’s Health Inequalities Strategy see our report: https://www.progressive-policy.net/downloads/files/Beyond-NHS.pdf