Levelling up the playing field

15 December 2020

The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s recent announcement of a £4bn Levelling Up Fund stated that it was ‘about funding the infrastructure of everyday life’. The fund will pay for ‘the things people want and places need’, such as new roads, upgraded railway stations, libraries, museums and galleries, and investment in town centres.

On the face of it, this seems to be a much-needed shot in the arm for communities dealing with the trifecta of COVID, Brexit and wider economic pressures. But, recent history is littered with one-off pots of money with similarly laudable aims.

The view from civil servants in Whitehall is that this fund is designed to find ‘shovel-ready’ projects that can begin to address decades of regional disparity and inequality. For ministers, this will be seen as achieving a major tenant of the 2019 Conservative manifesto, harnessing local knowledge to regenerate and renew places across the UK.

The view from town halls across the country is markedly different. The last nine months have meant challenge upon challenge, dealing with increased demand and complexity alongside diminishing resources and bandwidth.

The thoughts of council officers having to develop business cases and filling in forms to qualify for funding will not fill anyone with festive joy. However, this could be a genuine opportunity to take the partnership working from 2020 that has fused together public services in local areas and use the Levelling Up Fund as a chance to cement these relationships.

Central desire, local delivery

There is no doubt COVID has impacted on trust between local and central government. The issue of local versus national test and trace has exposed a widening gap. At times, it has been as if different languages were being spoken between the local and the national. Leicester and Greater Manchester, for example, struggled to build and maintain an effective working relationship with national actors. Routine issues such as data sharing became political footballs, volleyed back and forth.

Everyone who cares about effective public services has an interest in a close working relationship between Whitehall and councils. Following a year nobody wants to repeat, could the Levelling Up Fund act to bring the two parts of government together? Given the scale of spending needed to address the pandemic, is £4bn (over four years) really enough to reset the relationship?

Place-based recovery

Against the backdrop of Croydon LBC issuing a Section 114 notice, and the likelihood of more councils to follow, it might seem the Levelling Up Fund is too little too late. However, I believe it is a real opportunity for local government to do two things.

First, to hardwire the local partnerships it has forged in the last year across local public services around shared endeavors like regeneration and rejuvenation of local areas.

Second, there is a real chance to demonstrate the power of a budget process that goes beyond the confines of the town hall – showing to central government that local government can be the fulcrum upon which place turns, providing leadership and delivering local priorities.

In this spirit of working together, I urge colleagues across local government to engage with the Levelling Up Fund and do their part to demonstrate that 2021 can be the year of reset.

But it goes without saying that this must be a two-way street. Whitehall must provide clarity and transparency to the conditions for success when applying to the fund, and there must be no grounds for a repeat of the recent criticism levelled at the 2019 Town’s Fund by the Public Accounts Committee.

The Levelling Up Fund is not a panacea to the challenges facing local government. The £4bn over four years is not enough to reset the relationship with the centre, but it could well be the bridgehead to a relationship based more on reciprocity and shared endeavour.

Cohesive government is our best chance for our public services to recover from the ravages of 2020 and to improve outcomes for the people who rely on them. I urge councils to take this opportunity.

Emmet Regan is a director at Mutual Ventures


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