Reported by Paul Michael Brett, CSaP Policy Intern
The governments levelling up fund allows local areas to bid for £20 Million pots to improve “the infrastructure of everyday life”, but does that promote social infrastructure projects? How does regional autonomy fit in with wider national agenda?
In the third of the ‘Levelling up’ seminar series organised in conjunction with The Bennett Institute CSaP welcomed Policy Fellow Tom McNeil (Strategic Adviser at West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner’s Office) who opened a discussion on social policy as a form of levelling up. He was joined on the discussion panel by Policy Fellow Dr Molly Morgan Jones (Director of Policy at British Academy) and Owen Garling (Knowledge Transfer Facilitator, The Bennett Institute).
Levelling up: Regional problems, regional solutions?
Tom McNeil described how regional autonomy should allow for greater credibility and acceptance of policy decisions, what he termed “democratic legitimacy for our region”. He then suggested that rather than increasing prosperity and opportunity through investment in infrastructure, we should focus on tackling real and widespread social dysfunction, noting that “we really do not see economic policy as distinct from social policy”.
He went on to warn of two problems that his department foresees in the West Midlands because of the Covid-19 pandemic: expected mass youth unemployment and the social problems arising from children being outside of school. Consequently, he foresees an increased risk of a rise in crime. “Some of these problems aren’t new, but before we would at least have access to children through their schools” he added.
Mr McNeil then proposed a three-pronged solution to address the challenges which have arisen from youth unemployment and children’s absence from classrooms during the pandemic. The first prong calls for a new era of investment in pastoral support for schools, which would build trust between schools and families. He further called for a Universal Youth Mental Health package and a big round of ambitious job guarantees, which he suggests would be a preventative measure. He stressed that these solutions would save money in the long term, as funds will otherwise have to be spent on addressing social issues post facto. He ended his remarks by calling for action – “Don’t overthink it. We can use this as an opportunity to act and trust local regions”.
The economic bigger picture
Throughout the subsequent discussion, participants explored ideas of economics and interconnectivity, with Owen Garling asking, “how do we manage that the relationship between regionally developed ideas and national ideas of levelling up?” Participants explored what local regions can do to maintain their legitimacy whilst ensuring they feed into national agendas and link to other places, noting that answering that question is essential in encouraging authorities to work beyond their silos.
Questions surrounding the national role were echoed by Dr Molly Morgan Jones, who stated that the societal impact of Covid-19 “isn’t one problem, with one solution.” Rather, she suggested that this is a series of interconnected problems. Additionally, she questioned ideas of economic return, and how proposals are made for investment in something that does not yield returns for 20 or 30 years. Finally, she asked what the appetite for risk was, and with whom responsibility of that risk lies, noting that success can involve a large network and sense of responsibility, from both government and the public. She ended on a bold and positive note “A large proportion of innovative ideas fail, but it’s about the cumulative journey to one or two that are successful”.
Closing the event, Mr McNeil emphasised that we should use this moment as an opportunity for action. “If a policy idea is good, and there’s agreement, make it happen”. If it works, he suggested that other regions will follow suit, which could then inform national policy. As for the investment in the future, he argued that we have seen from the public’s response to the problems and solutions of climate change that there is appetite for risk and for change. With increasing evidence of public support, and government proposals for tackling future issues such as climate change, perhaps now is the time for action on multiple fronts.
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.