Reported by Camilla Faidutti, CSaP Policy Intern (April-July 2021)
Over the past decades, there have been recurring attempts by successive governments to tackle the challenges of regional economic divergence in different parts of the UK. According to the Bennett Institute’s Professor Michael Kenny, we are presently witnessing the “emergence of a new policy paradigm”, where the political system is better aligning its political and policy thinking with popular sentiment.
In the last event of the Levelling up seminar series, Professor Michael Kenny (Director, Bennett Institute), Tom Kelsey (Research Assistant, Bennett Institute) and Owen Garling (Knowledge Transfer Facilitator, Bennett Institute) shared their views on the UK Government’s approach to levelling up and on the themes that have emerged from this CSaP seminar series.
Professor Kenny focused his reflections on several points of contention. Firstly, he noted that the policy debate should embrace a more granular and regionally rooted perspective, away from the idea that the relevant comparative is London and the South-East. “Research we conducted at the Bennett institute suggests that it is much more important for government to understand the complexity and granularity of the different positions within the economic ecosystem of different places” said Professor Kenny, since “the regions and cities and towns within them are very likely on different kinds of growth pathway and if engaged will want to develop in rather distinct ways.”
Professor Kenny also noted that less attention has so far been given to the means and methods used. Here, he argued that physical infrastructure investments may not be sufficient to address different types of deficits across the country. Less tangible goals are equally important in generating positive outcomes. Moreover, he suggested that a significant degree of engagement with devolved authorities and local governments will be needed if the central government is to successfully design and deliver levelling up strategies, to ultimately ensure that policy is better tailored to local needs. Issues such as political accountability and how to assess what works, why and where are further matters of the ongoing debate.
Following Professor Kenny’s remarks, Tom Kelsey reported on the key themes which emerged in a recently published report for the Bennett Institute on social infrastructure. He argued that transforming the prospects of left-behind places requires investments in both physical and social infrastructures. Social infrastructures contribute to the creation of economic, social, and civic values. For example, in terms of economic value, town centres that integrate community facilities tend to be more resilient against a variety of pressures, such as the rise of online retail. Amenities such as pubs, cafes, and heritage assets on high streets can help attract footfall and incentivise spending at a local level. Additionally, Mr Kelsey noted that social infrastructure-related industries represent key sources of employment in the UK, with over 2 million people employed in such sectors.
Community facilities can also yield social value. According to Mr Kelsey, social infrastructures lead to positive physical and mental health outcomes, such as lower rates of depression or loneliness. During the pandemic, towns with higher numbers of amenities have also shown better support networks, with mutual aid groups being more easily mobilised if compared to places with fewer facilities. Moreover, in terms of civic value, strong communities with a sense of identification and participation form in places with well-maintained public facilities, where a sense of civic pride can be sustained.
With polling studies showing that, “if given the choice, local people would prioritise investment in social and gathering places ahead of investment in physical infrastructure and large-scale projects”, Mr Kelsey has also argued that an improved strategy around social infrastructure is needed from the government, to help level up local communities and address their priorities.
Concluding the seminar, Owen Garling (Knowledge Transfer Facilitator, Bennett Institute) echoed Mr Kelsey’s view to complement physical infrastructure with social amenities, and to let local communities give voice to their priorities. He also noted that, although the long-term levelling up agenda involves addressing regional economic productivities, the government has the opportunity to make swifter interventions in the shorter term, by focusing on the quality and pride of places, and the quality of life.
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.