We all now acknowledge that the UK has one of the most imbalanced societies and lop-sided economies of all western countries. It is not just that there is a gap between London and the South East and the rest of the country, there are huge gaps within the regions themselves — in life expectancy, educational attainment, employment prospects, earning power, crime statistics, social justice, and so on.
Of course, the underlying causes are highly complex, and successive governments share the blame to some extent. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms famously hollowed out industrial communities in the north and the regions without doing anything to equip them for recovery.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown doubled down on the same policy of prioritising the productive South East, and especially the City, whose tax revenues could compensate for the left behind areas. But welfare distribution, whilst it can secure people, can never transform the lives of the recipients. These were sticking plaster remedies. And no government in recent times has seriously sought to remedy the underlying causes of decline. Until now.
The Levelling Up White Paper is undoubtedly one of the most exciting policy publications to come out of any government in recent times. What’s right about this White Paper is that it accepts that there are multiple factors at play in generating and maintaining disadvantage, and that they have to be tackled as a whole.
In addition, and thankfully, the analysis is right as to the nature and character of geographical and (effectively therefore) class-based disadvantage.
Equally, there is no night watchman thesis as to the role of the state, the White Paper accepts that an indifferent State will only further entrench inequality. So, the turn to the mission lead approach by the government is greatly welcomed.
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That said it is not clear how they will aggregate it up, by which I mean who does the assembly of all the factors and how? Part of the problem is there is no account of what exactly the priority is and what we need to move on first. For example, there are six forms of capital that the paper seeks to generate (social, financial etc), twelve missions (education health etc) and five pillars (empowering local decision makers, transforming approaches to data etc) oh and 49 metrics to measure the above and that’s a preliminary assessment.
So a bewildering amount of tasks, functions, factors and outcomes and perhaps inevitably it is not clear who is tasked with responding to what. Nor is the paper clear on the financial need for the success of its policies and whether these ambitions will be matched with resources.
All of which I think takes us to perhaps the weakest part of the Levelling Up White Paper and that is the lack of ambition on regional and local government architecture. It largely dodges the question (yet again) of unitarization which is urgently required, we need a single tier of local government based on the genuine economic footprints that dictate the economic and social fate of places and people. And by side stepping the local and regional institutional question, it begs the question as to how this can be delivered and by whom.
I don’t mean to be negative, at a time of scant conviviality or common purpose between our political parties (Ukraine aside), the reception the White Paper received across the House speaks volumes about the quality and the seriousness of the ideas it contains. Politicians know what they want to deliver but do they have the delivery vehicle?
The White Paper promises a fundamental reorientation of power away from the Centre to the UK’s localities and regions. This is the right ambition, but we currently lack the means. There is a missing piece of architecture: a regional dimension.
Ever since the Regional Development Authorities were abolished by the Cameron Government in 2010, outside of major conurbations we have lacked a regional dimension to make the most of the many interconnected cities, towns, businesses and universities that constitute the vast hinterland of the country. If we want to level up all our places, this regional dimension is a crucial bit of architecture to do so.
There are already promising pan-regional partnerships in the North, the Midlands and Scotland and Wales. But the closer you get to London the more fragmented things become. In London and the South East, a mega city-centric approach has caused a centralisation of knowledge and capital and a fragmentation of adjacent regions.
This is why we have created the Eastern Powerhouse, a non—governmental initiative led by civic leaders and businesses in the East of England that will give the region a national voice and balance the books with London and the South East in terms of investment, productivity, ideas and attention.
We are developing plans to leverage the region’s assets — its world-leading university towns, its high-tech port facilities, its specialisms in agritech, life sciences and green technologies — to drive higher levels of investment and growth. In doing so we will level up the life chances of people in the region so they can fulfil their potential without having to desert the places and the communities they come from, and which need them.
This will be to everyone’s benefit. If the East of England where able to level up to the South East (excluding London) in terms of GDP per capita a not unachievable goal, the Eastern Powerhouse will deliver an extra £31.2bn a year in GDP for the national economy; £11.5bn of additional tax-take for the Exchequer; and an annual increase in per capita disposable income for East of England residents of £3,100. Even getting halfway there would produce handsome returns.
Ultimately, Levelling Up is about linkages. The Eastern Powerhouse will platform the whole of the East as a single interconnected region, linking its economic and urban centres with vital infrastructure and transport networks. It will promote a poly-centric approach that will enable better approaches to skills, employment, investment, infrastructure and transport across the region.
My message for the government is that our regional approach in the East needs replicating across the UK. A failure to think regionally will undermine the Government’s whole Levelling Up plan and that would be a colossal shame.
The author is director of ResPublica, an independent think tank which is launching the Eastern Powerhouse on 15 March.