Levelling up: A Sense of Place and Connectivity

22 March 2021


Reported by Paul Michael Brett, CSaP Policy Intern

Place matters in terms of culture and identity, yet nationally everything is connected. With this in mind, we asked: should levelling up be a central government agenda or a series of local tied-together agendas? Perhaps what really matters is that any interventions need to be ‘done with’, rather than ‘done to’.

In the fourth seminar of the ‘Levelling up’ series organised in conjunction with The Bennett Institute, we welcomed back Owen Garling (Knowledge Transfer Facilitator, The Bennett Institute) and heard from policy fellows including Rosie Cornelius (Head of Analysis and Performance, UKRI).

The Past and Future of Levelling Up: Everything and Nothing

The levelling up agenda has existed in one form or another for at least 80 years, suggested Mr Garling. Many of the regions which have been previously targeted for investment to support industries, such as Tyneside, Cumbria, South Wales, are still seen today as places which have been ‘left behind’. Reflecting on this, he suggested that one of the main issues with the ‘levelling up’ agenda was the lack of a concrete definition, as such it is “political genius, as it means everything and nothing”. Critically, it is also important to understand where levelling up decisions have been made, and by whom. Here, he highlighted “the centralization of decision making with this government” rather than devolving those decisions to regional governments, or even where this does happen – being a “contractual relationship with central government”.

Drawing on his past experiences with the Eastern England Development Agency, Mr Garling then highlighted three key points for the future of levelling up policy development. Firstly, he emphasised that “place matters” and that brings with it a sense of identity and individual culture, as well as inherent challenges. For example, ‘place’ can be increasingly narrowly defined, and there are questions around the autonomy that these increasingly narrow ideas of place have. Secondly, he emphasised the distinction between “doing to versus doing with”, noting that levelling up has to balance “meeting the needs of the funding body to the right things for place”. Finally, he suggested that to build back better, we must find ways to “absorb different ways of working” and to fit those into a national agenda of levelling up. This idea underlies a strategy based on connectivity, wherein it would be necessary for different regions with different strategies to interplay to have an impact across regions. Here, Mr Garling challenged policymakers to reflect on how different regions can work together to understand the complexities of place.

Challenges to Connectivity in Levelling Up

Continuing the discussion, Rosie Cornelius offered insight based on her experience with UKRI. First touching on geographic inequalities, she noted that contextual factors were important to consider when distributing funding, and therefore number is a misleading denominator. “An institution specialising in Arts and Humanities might have vastly different costs to one focussing on (Aero)space”, she mused. As such, levelling up ‘inputs’ might be a red herring, and we should instead focus should be on ‘outcomes’, she added. Concluding, she commented on the ‘place matters’ issue stating that she believes the government has a “places strategy for levelling up in mind”.

“How do you measure different things for different audiences at different scales?”

Throughout the seminar, participants debated how to measure inequalities between regions and differences in connectivity. With respect to connectivity, participants noted the complexity of measurements for connectivity, given that individual townscapes work and connect differently, making it difficult to aggregate data using nested scales. Some participants also noted that there can be pushback on data publications, with regional governments fears about how data will be relayed to central government increasing the difficulty of aggregating reliable national statistics.

However, while developing appropriate measurement tools continues to pose challenges, there are reasons to be optimistic about consensus in tackling a levelling up agenda. In a recent report from King’s College London, area-based inequalities were one of the few reasons for an ‘unequal Britain’ for which there is consensus across the country.

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.

Paul Brett

University of Nottingham