You can’t level up from Whitehall

By Sarah Longlands | 07 February 2022

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.

But throughout the paper, there was little evidence that the Government are ready for a devolution revolution that sees respect, power and resources pass to local government.   Indeed, even after more than a decade of funding cuts which have undermined local capacity, morale and service provision, the White Paper didn’t do justice to the centrality of local councils in the levelling up mission for the UK.  

The long wait for the paper along with the hype has meant that there was a huge amount of interest in the final text, and it’s easy to get sucked in.  However, given the lack of new funding announced and the lack of detail around delivery it’s understandable that many people will be moving on, particularly as concern around the cost of living crisis grows.  If Westminster aren’t prepared to stump up the cash and clarify how they will translate their ambitions into reality then why should local government and its partners do the thinking for them?   

The impact of the cost-of-living crisis will end up on the doorstep of local government and the Levelling Up White Paper will do little if anything to address the hardship, homelessness, poverty and destitution that it will bring.  This is because what is being proposed does not attempt to challenge or progress the prevailing economic approach.  Instead it relies upon the idea that if you can grow the economic pie everywhere then you will have more benefits to share out amongst everyone.  But the problem with the pie making strategy is that there is no automaticity that even if the pie does grow, that everyone will get a slice and what do you do whilst you wait for the pie to get bigger?

And this sense of frustration with the ‘grow the pie’ strategy is growing in local councils across the UK particularly where recent economic progress hasn’t translated into any tangible impact on levels of poverty and deprivation.  Whilst the White Paper offered no alternative to pie making it did offer something tangible on devolution with an offer to all areas who wanted it to negotiate for a devolution deal.  It was also good to see the principles of a devolution framework presented at long last.  And perhaps this is the one part of the White Paper that is worth paying attention to in the longer term because it does offer local decision makers a means to disrupt the inertia of local-central government relations and the means to access additional power and resources. 

And with additional powers and resources, with co-ordination across larger geographical scales, this does potentially present areas with an opportunity to build a different economic strategy longer term, an approach which is about how to make sure that existing wealth is more fairly shared, that more people get a slice of the pie.  And when the pie does grow, that there are mechanisms in place to connect people with the wealth through decent work, progression and a greater emphasis upon diversifying how land and property are owned so that the benefits flow back into a place rather than evaporate into the bank accounts of faraway shareholders and absentee landlords.

This is what levelling up should be is all about – action at the local scale to build wealth from your existing economic foundations and recognizing the value of the people, businesses and communities that you already have. 

The Levelling Up White Paper spent a lot of time talking about ancient history but failed to recognize given the challenges we face around environmental crisis, post pandemic recovery and cost of living, that we will need more than the lessons from Thebes. 

Devolution isn’t perfect but it is a means for local decision makers to look to the future, rather than the past and imagine a different future for cities, towns and villages in the UK and consign our reliance upon trickle-down economics to the past.  

Sarah Longlands is chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES)


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Local economies Politics Devolution Funding Poverty Levelling up