The stakes are high for the levelling up White Paper

By Erica Roscoe | 17 January 2022

In our annual health check of the economy of the north of England, IPPR’s new State of the North report shows that, despite the rhetoric, the reality of the levelling up agenda is lacking.

Investment in the North through initiatives like the Levelling Up fund comes nowhere near the decreases that we’ve seen as a consequence of austerity over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the country is becoming more centralised – funding previously controlled locally is now being done so centrally, and even presented as a gift from government.

Alongside this, the amount that central government takes in every pound paid in tax has actually increased from 95p to 96p over the course of their flagship agenda.

This centralising pattern is growing our regional divides with significant consequences for people across the region.

Notwithstanding the challenges we see across the north, there is a reason for optimism, as IPPR North’s research also finds that local people already know what is needed to level up, and are getting on with the job.

There are hopeful examples of northern excellence across the region, from public and private sector actors coming together to create healthier, low-carbon neighbourhoods through new housing developments in Leeds, to groups working within their communities to provide people with the skills they need to access new opportunities in Hartlepool.

But local communities alone are not sufficiently empowered to reduce the gaping inequalities across the country; it should be up to central government to let go of the power and resource they hoard in Whitehall, and enable councils and local organisations to access the tools they need to level up for themselves and thrive.

So how should they do this?

At its core, the anticipated Levelling Up White Paper must deliver an ambitious devolution agenda.

It should seek to broaden and deepen devolution and provide a devolution framework that offers local leaders the real power and resources they need to address local and regional priorities.

This should be flexible enough to be adaptable to the diversity of places across the country - from large cities to small towns.

In order for this to really work, it must be co-produced with local leaders, which should, in turn, re-set the basis of local-central relations, moving away from a culture of competition to one of trust, mutual respect and cooperation, where local leaders are trusted to identify the best solutions to local issues.

With an effective devolution framework underpinning all other policy decisions, the Government must commit significant long-term investment in order to do things like create a prosperous north, ensure a just transition to net zero in the region, and provide high-quality lifelong learning opportunities.

While investment from central government is essential, this must be handled by regional and local leaders.

But in advance of the white paper there’s still a lot that local and combined authorities can be doing with the powers they already have, despite their thinly stretched resources and often overburdened workforce.

They can use their significant spending power and regulatory functions, as well as services and engagement with residents to affect positive change and encourage the principles of decent work across their communities.

Local and combined authorities also have huge convening power, enabling them to link up services to ensure effective signposting across public and third-sector support.

This might take the form of connecting schools with extra-curricular activity clubs or linking up homeless charities with employment schemes to provide a clear pathway for individuals to get back on their feet.

Let us not forget the cross-boundary convening power of local and combined authorities allowing them not only to respond to shared challenges but also to amplify local voices and achieve greater impact.

Amazing work is being conducted by local authorities, work that we’ve seen in supporting vulnerable and struggling residents throughout the pandemic and far before, despite the far-reaching impacts of austerity.

While this must be celebrated, it is not enough, and the country cannot be levelled up with the resources currently available across the region.

But given the pockets of great work already in action across the north, just imagine what could be achieved through an effective devolution framework, sufficient resources and a collaborative relationship between national and local government.

Erica Roscoe is senior research fellow at IPPR North

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