levelling up

What good devolution looks like

This article originally appeared in the Local Government Chronicle.

Levelling up, powering up, reducing regional disparity – whatever you want to call it, the question of how we build an economy that works for the whole country has troubled political parties and policy makers of all stripes for decades. Yet, despite the problem having relative consensus across Westminster and attempts to tackle it being central to more than one programme for government, no one yet has managed to make much of a dent in the huge gaps between the geographical haves and have nots of the UK. Even this week, research from the IFS identified that the UK “has gone into reverse” on many metrics since the release of the Levelling Up White Paper, calling on the next government to take decisive action to reverse “glacial” progress on the agenda.


    Reclaiming our regions

    25th April 2024
  • A great leveller

    This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

    Despite its clear flaws, the Levelling Up Fund is one of the few funding mechanisms councils can access to provide much needed investment in their places.

    Launching this week, a new report from the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) and the Centre for Local Economic Studies (CLES) provides a guide for how councils can avoid falling into the trap of developing regeneration initiatives that extract wealth and deliver poor outcomes for people, place and planet, with a toolkit for projects to maximise their positive impacts locally.


    Getting the most from levelling up

    13th September 2023

    Future freeports

    18th July 2023
  • Can levelling up survive the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government?

    No cabinet will be able to ignore the deep inequality of the UK’s regional geography.

    This article originally appeared in the New Statesman

    As Boris Johnson’s government drains away, the people left trying to keep the country running in local government are wondering: is this the end of the road for levelling up? Even with the rapid deployment of Greg Clark to his new departmental brief, and even though the Prime Minister has yet to actually resign from the post, it’s difficult to envisage a road back to what was once Johnson’s rallying cry to voters in the Red Wall seats.

    Whitehall isn’t working

    At the same time as the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill made its second reading in Parliament on 8 June, another damming report on levelling up was being published – this time on the allocation of funding, by the Public Accounts Committee.

    Like ships in the night, the rhetoric and reality of this policy agenda sail past each other once again, with the government seemingly unwilling to learn the lessons from past mistakes.
    “the PAC report did not pull any punches”
    The PAC report did not pull any punches: ministers decided the principles for awarding the funding only after they’d seen the applicants; there was no transparency about the location and type of unsuccessful bids; local councils’ time, capacity and precious resources have been wasted repeatedly as they’ve attempted to make sense of a kneejerk policy agenda directed from the centre. Despite the billions that have been spent, the government are still no closer to understanding what impact their money has had or indeed, what they should be spending future money on in order to address the regional inequality that marks the UK out as a considerable outlier amongst OECD countries.
    “a degree level textbook for economic policy development”
    The PAC’s recommendations read like a degree level textbook for economic policy development: be clear about what outcomes you are trying to achieve; develop some indicators so that you know your investment is working; consider the evidence about what can be learned from past efforts to deliver the desired outcomes. The fact that ministers and civil servants aren’t even getting to basecamp on some of these foundational questions shows a contempt for the communities who are supposed to be benefiting from this investment as well as a disregard for the accounting of public money. All £11bn of it.

    London needs a new story for the levelling up era

    This article originally appeared in the Local Government Chronicle.

    The capital should be at the heart of the debate about what it means for a local economy to be successful.

    February’s levelling up white paper represented a long-overdue admission from the government that our economic model does not work for the majority of our country. Unfortunately, this important recognition does not seem to have translated into a prescription that reflects the scale of change that needs to take place. The government’s remedy, sadly, is for more of the same: ‘growing the pie, everywhere, for everyone’.
    “On conventional measures of ‘economic success’, London could be understood as doing well”
    As London has a pretty large slice of that pie, it could be assumed that, to deliver on levelling up, the government is seeking to mirror the regions to the capital’s success. On conventional measures of ‘economic success’, London could be understood as doing well.

    Levelling up paper falls way short of what is needed

    This article originally appeared in Infrastructure Intelligence.

    As an organisation with a keen interest in and focus on improving the health and vitality of local economies, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has much to say about the government’s levelling up white paper. Crucially, we believe that the document falls far short of the six tests we set ahead of its release.

    Firstly, on its purpose. Levelling up is, at long last, evolving from a catchy electoral slogan and we now have an emerging basket of indicators for success. But it’s not yet clear how these national ambitions will translate into local delivery which supports opportunities for everyone. There is nothing in the indicators about addressing wealth inequality or poverty, for example.

    You can’t level up from Whitehall

    This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

    The Levelling up White Paper was finally published last week.  But despite 332 pages of what was a rather chaotic document (part text book, part policy, part analysis), when it comes to levelling up, it’s clear that Westminster think they are in charge.

    The centrepiece of the White Paper were the 12 eye catching ‘missions’, many of which have been branded unrealistic by commentators.  However, if they are to have any chance of meeting just a few of them, they will need local government on their side.  A cursory glance down the list of missions and indicators shows that against nearly every goal, local government has a role to play.

    The mission for mayors is to reimagine our economic future

    The government must commit to giving them the powers they need.

    This article originally appeared in the New Statesman.

    With the establishment of new metro mayors and new powers for existing ones, English devolution looks as if it will be one of the winners of the Levelling Up white paper. But this new generation of mayors will be working in a very different economic context to those appointed back in 2015. Their mission must be to rethink and reimagine our subregional economies in order to build a more equitable recovery.

    Regional and sub-regional metro mayors (not to be confused with directly elected mayors that cover one local council area, introduced under the previous Labour government) were touted as a lynchpin of the so-called “devolution revolution” of the mid-2010s – itself designed to drive growth across larger economic geographies. The theory was that new subregional tiers of governance, headed by directly elected mayors, would help to galvanise public and private support for new investment. The indicators for success were improvements in productivity and a closing of the gap between London and the rest of the UK.

    How do we level up the UK?

    Focus on quality jobs that work for people

    This article originally appeared in the New Statesman.

    Attracting the inward investment of big capital doesn’t always lead to better outcomes. People need well-paid, good-quality jobs in the communities where they live.

    Regardless of your views on levelling up as a political catchphrase, there’s no doubt it hints at a remedy for feelings of place abandonment that have become all too common over the past 30 years as communities across the UK have seen their jobs, identity and hope slowly sucked away.

    Anchoring our ports

    This article originally appeared in the LGC.

    The government’s new freeports are likely to extract wealth and opportunity from local communities, but there is an alternative, writes Sean Benstead.

    At this year’s spring budget, the government announced the creation of eight freeports across England to promote regional regeneration, create high-skilled jobs and ensure sustainable economic growth.

    Open letter to Michael Gove

    Sarah Longlands, Chief Executive of CLES, has today written to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, imploring him to level up the UK by bringing wealth home to communities and businesses.

    As the Conservative Party Conference kicks off in Manchester, Sarah urges Mr Gove to consider three approaches to “making the most of the wealth and assets that already exist in the country’s cities, towns, villages and regions”.

    Dear Mr Gove