Levelling up: Policy, place and people

27 January 2021


Reported by Paul Michael Brett, CSaP Policy Intern

Levelling up broadly seeks to address gaps in regional economic performance. However, previous attempts have been focussed on place and limited in accomplishment. With this in mind, we asked: What is the nature of the ‘levelling up’ challenge? Is it one of History? Geography? Or is it the very way we use data to determine which regions are ‘left behind’?
Should policy focus be on ‘levelling up’ place? Or on people?

In the first session of the CSaP ‘Levelling up’ seminar series, participants from government and industry were hosted by Professor Mike Kenny, Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, and panellists Dr Nick Bisson, Director of HS2 Phase 2 (DfT) and Beth Chaudhary, Director of Strategy at The Cabinet Office.

Framing the Challenge:

Professor Kenny opened the discussion using a historical lens, suggesting that past UK attempts at ‘levelling up’ had worked on the assumption that “investment in economic regeneration should be the main aspect of any state developed program.” The assumed result being that other social indicators will then improve due to closing the economic gap. Here, Professor Kenny highlighted examples of historical success stories, such as that of Limburg and of East Germany; the co-ordinated efforts between central and provincial governments; and investment in transport infrastructure to link towns and cities. However, he cautioned that these approaches to ‘levelling up’ are not a silver bullet – analysis of the UK agglomeration policies show many places have not had any benefit from this approach. Given the time needed to affect these policies and temporality of the electoral cycle, Professor Kenny questioned our current understanding of the time scales in which any future policies would be expected to yield success.

“Levelling Up”, Productivity, and Regional Inequality:

Throughout the discussion, participants used the UK North/South debate to cast a light on the scale by which we determine inequality, with Professor Kenny noting that “in some regions, economic inequalities within that region are actually greater than inequalities between some regions and London in the southeast.” If we truly want to ‘level up’, Professor Kenny questioned whether we should we look at differences within regions on a more ‘micro’ regional scale to help us develop successful policies. Conversely, he also noted that the more micro the scale, the greater the challenge of co-ordination and coherence between these focussed policies.

Meanwhile, Dr Nick Bisson noted the high concentration of UK productivity in London, commenting on the width of inequality and productivity within the UK compared with states such as France and Germany. Whilst investment in the North is necessary, he raised the question of how to make it a more attractive place for people to work. Suggested possibilities included the fusion of different labour markets or fostering a greater variety of jobs in the region. Here, Beth Chaudhary raised a series of questions about the role of social and cultural investment in regeneration, and the ways in which uncertainties related to the covid-19 pandemic, the transition to net zero, and Brexit will place a spotlight on investment policies. She also noted that the pandemic has resulted in more people working from home and more dispersed social and economic activity, while highlighting that calls for governments to ‘Build Back Better’ has created the opportunity for the UK to ask whether levelling up’ should be an incremental change or a time for a ‘Big Bang’ rethink.

The Use of Data:

Do we only value what we can measure? Professor Kenny noted that there is a risk that ‘levelling up’ objectives might be chosen solely on the accessibility of data and measurement of success. Noting that it might be very difficult to obtain data on objectives linked to person rather than place, such as measures of well-being, the Bennett Institute is conducting an analysis of micro level interventions and investments in community infrastructure. They are also working to understand how we might capture the value of these interventions in both monetary and non-monetary terms to help shape policies that develop public services and positively impact social cohesion.

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 Institute's blog series here.

Dr Nick Bisson

Department for Transport (DfT)

Paul Brett

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Beth Chaudhary

Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education

Professor Michael Kenny

Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge