What form should the government’s levelling up agenda take?

2 November 2021


What form should the government’s levelling up agenda take?

Reported by Nick Cosstick, Policy Researcher at CSaP

Levelling up was an amorphous policy pledge in the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto. Since then, numerous academics and policy organisations have focused on what ‘levelling up’ means, and how it should be achieved. The upcoming Levelling Up White Paper is expected to specify a precise policy programme for this agenda.

On 21 October 2021, a panel session on levelling up was held at the Royal Academy of Engineering as part of the Centre for Science and Policy’s annual meeting and reception. It was chaired by Nick King, Head of Business Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies. The panel consisted of: Tom Walker, Director of the Levelling Up Taskforce at the Cabinet Office; Professor Michael Kenny, Co-Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy; and Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive at Power to Change.

Click on the image below to listen to the discussion

The structure of the levelling up agenda

Tom Walker’s role in the Cabinet Office prohibits him from disclosing the contents of the forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper. However, he highlighted some resources within the public domain, which outline the basic structure of the levelling up agenda.

The first is a Guardian opinion piece written by Neil O’Brien, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities. Levelling up is characterised by four goals: empowering local leaders and communities, growing the private sector and raising living standards, spreading opportunity and improving public services, and restoring local pride. For Walker, this characterisation shows how levelling up goes beyond the narrower Local Growth agenda, which preceded it. The agenda also promises to be truly “union-wide”.

The second is an interview in the Sun with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities. Levelling up was compared to the task of turning round a failing school. In both cases, visible changes help to create long-term changes. Walker agreed, arguing that levelling up in the long-term requires “visible, impactful measures” in the short-term. The third is a series of reports by the Industrial Strategy Council. Walker endorsed their three key ingredients for a successful growth plan: scale, longevity, and policy co-ordination. In closing, he stressed that policy co-ordination requires a “more place-based” reorientation of central government.

The role of history

Professor Kenny highlighted the role that history should play in developing the levelling up agenda. There is a tendency to see the policy history of local regeneration as “one entirely of failure”. He said this view is unhelpful; policy history is a resource to be learned from. It can help us to identify the assumptions which have “skewed” local growth policies.

One such assumption is the value of the ‘agglomeration economics’: the benefits caused by the close congregation of individuals and businesses. According to Professor Kenny, this has led policymakers to believe that growth should only be promoted “in large, densely populated, urban areas”. Outside the South East, agglomeration’s policy record is “variable to say the least”. Moreover, “even if agglomeration effects were happening across the UK’s leading cities”, there would still be problems on the peripheries of these areas.

Professor Kenny said historical case studies help in forecasting the timescales needed to effect change. German reunification is an important case study. The progress that has been made in closing the East-West productivity gap is the result of three decades of significant funding. Other case studies include Lille and San Antonio, and France’s Cœur de Ville programme. Vidhya Alakeson agreed with the importance of learning from case studies. For her, an evaluation of the UK’s previous efforts for local regeneration––such as the Single Regeneration Budget and the New Deal for Communities Programme––shows the need for local communities to have a “meaningful” role in decision-making and budgetary control.

The importance of social infrastructure

Professor Kenny argued that the failure of agglomeration effects to impact peripheral areas demonstrates the importance of ‘social infrastructure’: the physical spaces and community facilities which bring people together to build meaningful relationships. The Bennett Institute’s Townscapes review found that social infrastructure has economic, social, and health benefits.

Vidhya Alakeson discussed this further. She said there is “growing evidence” that places are not just held back by economic factors, but also by their fraying social fabric. Policy often focuses on just one of these two features, but this ignores their interaction. Social infrastructure policy addresses both simultaneously. Furthermore, the British Academy’s work on the societal impacts of COVID-19, shows that communities with stronger social infrastructure are more resilient.

Alakeson ended with a political point. Polling suggests that the success of the levelling up agenda will be judged by the “visible changes” that people “can see in their local communities”. Although such changes are often dismissed as merely cosmetic, this is not inevitably the case. Visible changes can be as important as having: a thriving high-street, functioning local services, and a community pub and post office. These are “tangible” changes, which people “can see and experience”.

Other sessions at the annual meeting included: Net zero and Child development, learning, and mental health.

Vidhya Alakeson

The Labour Party

Nick Cosstick

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Professor Michael Kenny

Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge

Nick King

Henham Strategy

Tom Walker

Cabinet Office Levelling Up Unit

  • 21 October 2021, 3pm

    CSaP annual meeting & reception 2021

    On 21 October 2021, CSaP hosted its first in-person networking event since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The annual meeting and reception, held at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, provided an opportunity for 115 public policy professionals, industry leaders, and researchers to meet and share their experiences to improve decision-making.