Reported by Paul Michael Brett, CSaP Policy Intern
The government's levelling up agenda has set aside funding, such as the towns fund, to help achieve this agenda. These funds require successful bids from local councils. After years of funding cutbacks, and skill losses, how do local regions bid for these funds, or develop the skills to bid? Does the very nature of a competitive bidding process drive against ‘levelling up’ collaboration within regions? In the seventh and final instalment of the ‘Levelling up’ seminar series, Zoë Billingham (Head of Policy and Engagement, Deputy Director at Centre for Progressive Policy) and Dr Matthew Gill (Policy Director at British Business Bank) explored these questions.
Through her work with the Centre for Progressive Policy, Zoë Billingham has worked regional and national leaders to tackle regional inequalities. This work had been rolled into the ‘levelling up’ agenda for the general election in 2019. Speaking to policy fellows about this work, Ms Billingham that she “wasn’t particularly impressed with the governments approach” and feels that the term ‘levelling up’ is overused. Reflecting on the Kings College Study ‘Unequal Britain’ – which found that regional inequalities were the UK populations primary inequality concern, she suggested that this shows that the message is high on the national agenda.
Describing how she felt that the governments approach to ‘levelling up’ was wanting, Ms Billingham detailed the funds available for the purpose, while noting that the application for those funds was via a competitive bidding process. Here, she suggested that too few local authorities had the means to bid. She added that the bidding incentivises an absence of collaboration as it forces local regions “to look after their own” and the funds are mostly incentivised for capital, rather than social, infrastructure projects. Furthermore, she described how an element of ‘pork barrel politics’ could come into play with the central government assigning pots of funding to regions that were interesting to them electorally.
Continuing, Ms Billingham argued that regional inequality will not be solved overnight via the ‘levelling up’ agenda, and that any resolution will manifest only over long timeframes. Laying out her own advocacy strategy, she described a ‘two-pronged approach’ to keeping the pressure on government by asking where the money is going and how much, while also asking ‘what is the best you can do with this money?’ Touching on themes that have recurred throughout the seminar series, she added that pressure should be put on government to allow funding for social infrastructure as well as capital “to tackle those deep-rooted inequalities” and moreover to hold the government to account for the measurement of progress on the agenda.
In her concluding remarks, Ms Billingham touched on the devolution question, and whether there is support for local governments to work together to put bidding pots of money into the context of their local strategic economic plans – “these combined authorities could join up funding at a local level and have the flexibility that they need to spend between pots… that could be pretty transformational”.
Joining the discussion, Dr Matthew Gill echoed concerns over the competitive bidding nature of the fund and asked whether it was a means by which central government retained control “if you make a central decision that towns matter, then you can make a decision over which towns matter”. He then asked what structures can exist in these towns or centres of regions that could help make sense of the town’s funds bidding processes. Ms Billingham replied that there is a government fund of £125,000 available to councils to help them to make bids, but suggested that this is a short-sighted approach to tackling the problem as although it may allow for a consultant or think tank to make the bid, it does not embed the learning of successful bid writing at a local level.
As we consider the skills needed to make these bids, participants at this event suggested that perhaps now is an important time to complete a resource stocktake at a local government level. They suggested we need to explore how local governments have changed in terms of their resources and ability to bid for these funds and how these local governments structure themselves for these bids.
The 2021 CSaP ‘Levelling up’ Seminar Series aims to bring Policy Fellows from different departments together to discuss the challenges of addressing unequal economic performance within regions of the UK. This year's series is hosted in partnership with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. This series will help to stimulate the policy debate around levelling up by exploring key areas such as the role of infrastructure, the importance of data and measurement, the relationship between trust, social capital and levelling up, and the impact of a transition to a net zero carbon economy on left-behind places. It will also look outside of the UK for examples of how other countries have managed regional inequalities. You can follow the Bennett Institutes blog series here.