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Levelling Up: “A more holistic approach to economic development is required”


If the issues of Levelling Up are to be addressed there is a need to consider the mechanisms of funding communities and regeneration schemes as well as some business activities. The provision of investment and new investment vehicles can be a powerful force for good in the overall approach if addressed in an inclusive manner.  

The narrative around equality, diversity, inclusion and widening participation is not new, but despite the issue being widely debated a suitable approach to addressing these issues has not been enshrined across all spheres of economic development. In many cases, the consideration of these issues is ‘bolted-on’ to a project initiative rather than being the starting point for the determination of the initiative in the first place.

Historic approaches to economic development used to suggest almost all growth was to be commended because somehow the benefits would ‘trickle down’ to wider society. This strategy essentially followed the maxim that a rising tide raises all ships. This trickle-down effect of the traditional approaches to economic development has not been proven to work and in some cases has deepened inequalities. The conclusion that has to be drawn is that a far more holistic approach to economic development is required and that the outcomes must be measured and learned from more effectively.

The inequalities which arise within economies are often a result of several different societal factors such as health, education, income and crime and the situation is compounded when these factors are concentrated at a community level. It is true that shared and innovative thinking and the pooling of ideas is required to solve some of the greatest inequalities within our economy, but it is also clear that current approaches to policy development reinforce siloed thinking and tend to treat the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem.

Traditional interventions aimed at addressing specific barriers or helping to support individuals do little to reduce entrenched and historic deprivation and inequality that some of our communities face. Community scale responses are required to address these multi-dimensional barriers and break the self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation and inequality.

Getting this piece of the Levelling Up jigsaw right will be vital to ensuring that it delivers for those most deprived communities so that no-one is left behind – and in the past there is evidence to suggest that the problem was not even acknowledged, never mind addressed correctly.

Enablers/working differently
It follows from the summary above that the following enablers will be required to ensure that a new economic approach focused on Levelling Up must provide:

1. A collaborative approach. There is a need for systemic changes where departments/ organisations which impact on one another develop approaches collectively. Any of the work that they then pursue will need to address the root cause and not the symptoms of inequality. Failure to approach the work in this manner may create strategies that despite being well-meaning are actually counter-productive in addressing inequalities.

The work will therefore require:
• More collaboration across different policy areas.
• Supporting policy-makers and system actors in applying social value principles to complex decision making.
• Use public funding as a catalyst for community led place-based change by allowing for joined-up projects across different traditionally separate policy areas (e.g. transit-oriented communities)
• Not slavishly following value for money measures but considering the long-term social costs of not addressing some of the deepest rooted societal issues.

2. Support for social innovation by providing a safe space for experimentation and scale-up through appropriate funding mechanisms and build capacity to;
• improve the delivery of public services.
• support the social economy to thrive through the provision of some of the innovative funding mechanisms being championed by the third sector and the associated management of expectations with regard to the return on capital.

Where this work occasionally fails, celebrate the failure and learn. Honest evaluation of different approaches leads to the evolution of interventions by helping to refine the approach taken. This will require more flexible and holistic social funding vehicles that do the ‘cocktail mixing’ to find the right blend of finance for social organisations.

3. Harnessing of social capital to stimulate greater collaboration and cohesion of services across our communities leading to;
• holistic community-led approaches and grass roots interventions that empower communities.
• meaningful co-design of interventions with those that will be impacted by them.

4. Increasing levels of community wealth-building to help address the imbalance of ownership of key community assets to unlock community-led regeneration and use public spending to; 
• support combined authorities and local authorities to improve social value in public procurement and become advocates for other public bodies.
• provide development capacity and capability that is needed to ensure that great ideas can be translated into meaningful action.

This approach needs economic development and the provision of public services to be seen through a fresh pair of eyes with a focus on objectives that involve improved outcomes for communities, not only through the services provided but also the mechanisms that deliver them. If Levelling Up can achieve this then the approach will have been very clear sighted and long overdue.

Joanne Leek is Economic Development Manager at Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, and a Director/member of the IED. This article was first published in Levelling Up: pre-White Paper perspectives from economic development professionals.