Reported by Paul Michael Brett, CSaP Policy Intern
How can we measure success in the UK government’s efforts to implement a levelling up agenda? What frameworks could be used to hold the government to account, and how might the UK2070 commission play a role in this?
In the fifth of the ‘Levelling up’ seminar series, organised in conjunction with The Bennett Institute, CSaP welcomed Sir Robert ‘Bob’ Walker Kerslake, the Former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and current chair of the UK2070 commission; an independent inquiry into city and regional inequalities in the UK .
In tackling the issue of levelling up, the UK2070 commission, chaired by Bob Kerslake, works with the Universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Kings College London, and the Lincoln University Institute of Land Policy. Their work relies on what Sir Bob describes as “the force of our argument, and crucially the force of our evidence”. Outlining findings from the commission’s Fairer and Stronger Report he described projections from where we are now if the UK does not tackle its regional inequalities. In an economic high growth scenario, half of all future UK jobs would go to London and the South East. However, a growing imbalance was bad for London as it would mean mounting house prices, commute times and increasing environmental pressures. In a low growth scenario, regions would economically move backwards, reversing the growth of previous years. He asserted that a key argument the report made was “this isn’t a North vs South issue, this is North and South… unless we tackle these imbalances, everyone will lose out”.
Meanwhile, a second report, titled ‘Make No Little Plans’, has outlined a long-term 10 point plan for levelling up which keeps with other national agendas. The report addresses topics including zero carbon transition, a connectivity revolution, R&D centres of excellence, a new ‘advanced’ economy, housing as a key infrastructure issue and finally, education as means to raise the skilled workforce needed. “This is a long game,” emphasised Sir Bob in his remarks to policy fellows. Throughout his remarks, he also noted that there are challenges around how government will implement levelling up. Crucially, he believes that the UK will not deliver levelling up without a much more devolved way of doing business in this country.
Geography, Devolution and Levelling Up:
The fact that inequalities and disparities exist means that ‘one policy almost never fits all’, Sir Bob suggested. He added that he has seen strong local leadership in the UK, and that while the UK needs local leadership and local agency, it also needs for this leadership to be supported with the devolution of funding. In his view, local leaders are attuned to local issues, while the civil service has an overloaded centre and a disempowered set of places. Sir Bob suggested that a new tier of government which could bring together key leadership to take forward action in pan-regional collaborations could be one component of a solution. He also noted, in response to questions of regional connectivity, that we need to take into account functional geography. Where city systems become interrelated with their surrounding towns and communities, he believes you cannot truly revive those economies without having cities connected to them.
Reflecting on how the Cabinet Office might consider adapting its mindset to the changes that he had suggested, Sir Bob stated that “you need a champion of real power and authority inside government”. Asked about how the UK can gauge success of the government on an agenda that some have described as poorly defined, he returned to the UK2070 commission. Here he presented what he called the ‘National Outcome Framework’ and asserted that “we want to hold the government to account on progress against the framework… otherwise there’s no evidence that the government is going to set some measures and give us some sense of what success looks like”.
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.