Part III - Looking Forward
As set out in part II of this blog, the framework for levelling up outlined in the Levelling Up White Paper (LUWP) is beginning to take shape, not least through with the passage later this year of the Levelling Up Bill, the on-going process of devolution and the evolving role of the LUAC. Overall, my judgement is there has been greater progress in enacting the regional policy framework laid out in LUWP than is commonly appreciated.
At the same time, while policy decision-making processes may have changed, the outcomes faced by most people, especially in poorer parts of the UK, so far have not. To some extent this simply reflects the fact that it takes time to reverse long-standing vicious cycles in performance. That is why missions were set a decade ahead.
Nonetheless this means that, while the progress towards levelling up might be greater than the general public realise, it is less than many were expecting. This expectations gap needs to close if the credibility of levelling up policies is to grow over time. What more might be done to enhance the credibility of this framework for regional policies? Let me conclude with a few speculative suggestions for doing so.
- The reporting framework for progress against the missions will be crucial for giving credibility to the process. Any dilution of the missions, or subjectivity around reporting against them, would be damaging. The more objective and arms-length this reporting framework, the lower these risks. That might involve drawing outside experts, or indeed the LUAC, into the reporting process to ensure rigour and objectivity.
- Public scrutiny of local policies and outcomes will also be crucial for shaping incentives and ensuring accountability in a world of devolved decision-making. That calls for continuing improvement in collecting and communicating local data and assessing local performance relative to it. Oflog is one step towards doing so, though its evaluative role is limited. Something akin to the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) for places could fill this gap in experimentation and evaluation of levelling up policies.
- The Government has a public procurement budget of over £300 billion. Under the Social Value Act, a significant proportion of this budget could be used to support local outcomes. At present, this potential is largely unfulfilled. Greater transparency is needed about how – indeed, whether – procurement policies are supporting levelling up. The same is true of departmental spending, where greater transparency about, and stronger incentives towards, reallocating spending would be welcome.
- The LUWP proposed that Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS) come up with plans to allocate 5% of their £300 billion portfolio towards local investments. That progress could be accelerated if local investment allocations were also considered by the private pensions industry. Newly liberated by changes in regulation and the proposals announced by the Chancellor at Mansion House, this £3 trillion pot could make a huge contribution to place-based financing.
- With good progress having been made through the trailblazer deals, it will be important to continue to push the boundaries of devolution through upcoming settlements. As part of this, it will be important to ask what powers should usefully reside at the sub-regional – or community – level. Such “double devolution” has an important role to play in empowering local people to regenerate their places. This community-led aspect of the LUWP has, so far, made limited progress.
- While IZs and LUPs help with cross-sectoral partnerships, there is a ongoing question about how the moving parts of policy are best coordinated at the regional level. Is some form of regional development body needed to achieve that coordination, consistently and systematically? And if so, what form of governance is likely to be most effective, balancing the need for consistency with an appropriate degree of decentralisation and subsidiarity of powers?
This blog has set some of the progress on levelling up since the publication of the LUWP. Future blogs will explore in detail some of the issues being pursued by the LUAC and other ideas for supporting the Government’s levelling up agenda. This is an agenda on which good progress is being made but whose importance to the UK’s citizens has continued to grow and disparities across the UK have continued to widen.