So the Levelling Up White Paper finally arrived, carrying with it both the weight of its own lengthy gestation and the burden of defining and resetting the government’s policy agenda in a politically volatile moment. Could it possibly deliver in the face of such pressure?
There are some obvious points of criticism: around the role of local government – not strong enough; the level of devolution – too little and too many conditions; or the money – too little and too centrally controlled.
To understand why these criticisms matter we need to go back to the paper’s strongest moment and the central part of its methodology: the 12 transformative missions it sets out. We wanted the paper to give clarity to levelling up and to broaden its scope. Arguably we got that; the missions are clear, measurable and encompass health, wellbeing, identity and agency as well as the economy.
The ‘mission’ approach is increasingly influential in public policy. Andy Haldane, who led on the paper for the Cabinet Office, adopted a similar approach as Chair for the Industrial Strategy Council (whose work finds many echoes in the White Paper) and it has been developed most famously through the work of Mariana Mazzucato in books such as Mission Economy and through the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, including the Camden Renewal Commission (worth noting that local government is, as so often, ahead of the national curve)
But missions are more than targets. They must be ambitious, clear and measurable but they must also, as Mazzucato writes in an IIP policy note, ‘involve multiple, bottom up solutions: Missions should not be achievable by a single development path or by a single technology’. As she puts it with David Willetts in the foreword to A Mission Oriented Industrial Strategy, ‘A mission-oriented approach is not a top down process. It means fostering dynamic engagement across society on the key challenges a country faces.’
Does the White Paper enable this sort of approach? Not really.
The devolution it offers mirrors that of 2015/16: tied to specific governance structures and focused on transport, infrastructure, investment and skills. There is little opportunity to focus on significant public service reform, no ability to deploy single place budgets and certainly no fiscal devolution.
The paper laments the complexity of the funding landscape, but the policy section is a long list of ‘programmes’, ‘funds’ and ‘strategies’, including the Levelling Up Fund, the Towns Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund all of which look likely to play a key role in financing local government for the foreseeable future. This competitive bidding approach to funding mitigates against innovation, collaboration or long term strategic thinking.
The net effect of all this is that local institutions and through them local communities do not have the wherewithal in terms of funding or powers to foster the sort of bottom up innovation or strategic agility that a missions based approach demands.
This is why the White Paper feels progressively less satisfactory and more fragmentary as it goes on and why the sections on policy and on systems don’t appear to support the paper’s opening sections or to set out a clear road path towards meeting the challenges set out by the missions.
There was so much riding on this White Paper that it was, perhaps, inevitable that it would not live up to external expectations; less so that it would fall short against the expectations it set itself.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the LGiU