Levelling Up: renewed opportunity for long-term vision and money to deliver it
In these economic times, facing such challenges, we turn to our leadership for a clear, long-term vision to take the country a better place. However, the issue is we do not have a compelling, long-term vision with the necessary focus to turn the dial. Nor do we have a collectively agreed destination or money to back it up, not least within local government.
The White Paper recognises that inequality exists both between regions and within regions, pervades from hyperlocal to national contexts, and notes that there has not been a shortage of attempts to tackle these issues. It attributes failure to succeed to their short-term nature; lack of evidential and evaluation data, oversight, and scale sufficiency; lack of local empowerment, and shortcomings in transparency and accountability. It also recognises that inequality is a hugely complex web of many interlocking socio-economic factors.
Of these contributory reasons for failure, my view that the most important is the short-term nature. It has been said that regeneration takes a generation, but some of our worst areas of failure – education and skills, and poor health (particularly obesity) – are so entrenched they will take even longer than that. This is a long-term endeavour, a programme of fundamental change, and one requiring a significant, sustained commitment of funds. It has taken us 100 years to get us to here: there are no quick fixes.
So why does the Government’s response to all this stop at 2030? Where is the 20-year plan, or the 40-year plan? Where is the bold, enlightened leadership for the UK's long-term future? No-one could argue with the overall general ambitions of the Levelling Up agenda, regardless of political persuasion, but to even indicate that something will transform and deliver sustained rises in living standards and wellbeing within such a short timescale is cynical beyond belief.
There are also critical issues to be resolved in the nearer term. The most radical part of the White Paper is about extending devolution and empowering decision-makers in local areas. If devolved powers include meaningful autonomy on those that are centrally controlled, and if there is a significant long-term funding settlement, perhaps this is one area for positivity.
Whilst I am a strong advocate of local, informed, transparent, place-based decision making, with responsibility goes accountability. Local leadership must be more inclusive, cohering citizens, charities and voluntary services, NGOs, academia, small businesses, residents, investors, corporates, around an agreed set of socio-economic goals. To have the widest debate on our future. This is essential to arrive at a clear, long-term, prioritised vision through which lens all spending decisions can be made.
In particular, it must make much better efforts to genuinely engage and hear the voices of the left-behind communities and individuals, young people in particular. Do it with them, not to them. It must have or acquire the intellectual capacity to not only understand the deep complexities of deprivation and inequality, but what, with its currently overstretched financial and human resources, has the best chance of making a real difference to level up its place.
It also needs to really understand what private sector businesses need – the engine of wealth creation providing the tax funds to level up – at all stages, from start up to scale up, in order to encourage more investment, take more risk, generate more growth, jobs and higher productivity.
Finally, I would make a call to arms for all of us to commit to the most important statement in the White Paper, that “reversing history requires long-lived, sustained and consistent policy efforts that are commensurate with the scale of disparity”. Now, more than ever before, we have the technological means at our disposal to make our voices heard about what type of society we want to bequeath to those who follow us.
That vision will be our compass. We must make time to think about what is truly important to us as a country, just as many stepped up to the plate to help create more resilient communities during Covid when we were truly all in it together.
Bev Hurley CBE is Chair of the Institute of Economic Development (IED). Bev is speaking at the IED Annual Conference 2022, ‘Supporting the Development and Levelling Up of Local Economics’, on 6th October. Tickets are available to IED member and non-members. Book your place here.