Just days ahead of the Spending Review and COP26, and with the levelling up white paper hotly anticipated, the timing of the Centre for Progressive Policy’s (CPP) annual Inclusive Growth Conference last week, with its focus on how we can achieve a greener, fairer and more prosperous economy, could not have been more timely.
Chaired by broadcaster Ritula Shah, CPP’s director Charlotte Alldritt reflected it was a good moment to take stock of the nature and pace of change over the last 20 months but that ‘ensuring a lasting impact on public policy must involve taking a fresh look at issues that pre-date the pandemic…Inequalities between people and places have held back communities and undermined UK productivity for decades…There is a [now] a rare moment for change.’
As COVID-19 exposed and compounded the various inequalities within our society, the way in which we now tackle them was a sustained theme of the day. But a weary Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford, began by stressing the unhelpfulness of phrases like ‘bouncing back’, which imply that we stay on the same track as we were before the pandemic. Instead, he argued that we need bold and innovative policy ideas, much like in the immediate post-war era when out of the wreckage of war the modern welfare state was born.
Polly Billington, from the UK100 Cities Network, emphasized the need to look at our inconsistent history of industrial transition to see how we get it right now. Former MP, Rt Hon Caroline Flint, noted that two in five jobs in the UK’s poorest regions are carbon intensive and stressed that communities will need significant targeted support to reskill and to find new jobs if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past.
However, the Government was thought to lack a firm plan to ensure a just transition, despite having launched its Net Zero Strategy only the day before. Simon Hansen, Director of the Copenhagen Center for Public Policy at the University of Copenhagen and former managing director of the C40 network, stressed how rapid transitions can be disastrous for the most vulnerable communities unless safeguards are put in place. The importance of financing green projects was emphasized by Ryan Jude, from the Green Finance Institute, who pointed out that whilst private finance is essential to fund the transition to net zero, public finance is vital to protect vulnerable communities.
The idea of community resilience has been heightened by the pandemic, as has the scale of health inequality in the UK which, according to Anita Charlesworth from the Health Foundation, ultimately marks the success (or otherwise) of a society. Focusing on how life expectancy increases have stalled since 2011, with the most disadvantaged communities seeing the worst damage, she argued that advancing the nation’s health is of fundamental importance if we are to break the vicious cycle of ill health, loss of income and social exclusion.
Economist and author Dambisa Moyo urged us not to lose sight of the role of the private sector in creating growth, improving living standards and driving innovation. In a similar vein, Lord Jim O’Neill mentioned Northern Gritstone, a company founded by leading universities in the north of England to channel investment into academic spin-offs. Lord O’Neill and John Stevenson MP both argued that the expansion of the Pupil Premium – as called for by CPP in a joint paper with the Northern Research Group – should be at the heart of levelling up.
But the biggest lever for system change identified throughout the day was localism. Place-based policy and leadership had the power to ensure long-term thinking that delivers real change on the ground. Julia Goldsworthy, former director at the West Midlands Combined Authority, decried the impact of ‘Whitehall atomisation’ and made the case for empowering places at town, city, community level – a theme that was reinforced by Liam Byrne MP and Paul Howell MP as they launched a joint statement by their respective APPGs on Inclusive Growth and Left Behind Neighbourhoods.
In addition to its key proposals for creating a healthier, greener and fairer economy, the joint statement argued that the devolution of power and Total Place-style investment was vital. Levelling up had to go beyond the typical north-south divide narrative and strike at the roots of our inequalities, focusing on local circumstances and working with, and not to, people. Long term, grassroots level investment in communities is needed, not just big ticket infrastructure. Such an emphasis on social infrastructure spending was reverberated by Margaret Bolton from the Local Trust, who stressed that funding should be allocated based on need and not via a competition between local authorities.
Wrapping up the conference, Charlotte Alldritt stressed how the day revealed the high degree of consensus across the political spectrum, policy community and within the media on the role of place and the need for a real transition strategy taking into account the needs of left behind communities. Underpinned by a long term vision that goes beyond the electoral cycle, she concluded that green and inclusive growth can and should go hand in hand, but warned that consensus only gets us so far – what we need now, is action.
Thomas Hauschildt is communications manager and Ross Mudie is research analyst at the Centre for Progressive Policy
A livestream of the CPP Inclusive Growth Conference is available here