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What policies, and shifts in practice, are needed next to support Levelling Up?


It is three years since the phrase Levelling Up was first coined as a slogan to symbolise Boris Johnson’s plans to spread opportunity in left-behind parts of the country. Now, as I write this article, the two candidates vying to replace him as Prime Minister have promised the nation in their latest head-to-head that they will continue with this policy: “an unequivocal mawhatssive yes” (Rishi Sunak) and "completely committed" (Liz Truss).

At the same time, yet another study has identified that the spending gap between London and the North has widened further. IPPR North's latest analysis says the region continues to receive less per person in public spending than the rest of the country. In 2021 total public spending per person in the North was £86 lower that the England-wide average, and £3,008 less than in London. This is another sign that despite repeated pledges the money is not simply following the rhetoric. So where do we really stand?

In the eyes of Westminster, at least, the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper sets out how success can be measured, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has opened its Levelling Up Fund for the second round of bids from local communities, and a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is imminent. However, policy is one thing and on-the-ground delivery of economic development initiatives underpinning Levelling Up is another. 

On 6th October, the Institute of Economic Development (IED) is hosting its Annual Conference, titled Supporting the Development and Levelling Up of Local Economies, to unpick some of the practical issues. Here are nine challenges, or opportunities, that we will address:

1 Innovation in the regeneration of towns

After a decade where the economic growth of the UK has been focused on a number of core cities, the agenda shifted to the left-behind places in general and specifically towns. In many cases these locations have lost their original economic function; the location has insufficient critical mass for other types of activity and/or the changes in retail habits and Covid-19 have broken the High Street. We will look at the issues and offer solutions for town economies. 

2 Inequality of opportunity in our communities

Whilst the Levelling Up agenda has set out a broadly place-based approach, it is also clear that, at a more granular level, there are communities even within apparently prosperous locations which are missing out on opportunity. As the UK reaches full employment, the inequality of opportunity is likely to become, not only a significant societal issue, but also a brake on economic performance. The interventions to address this are not straightforward and we will consider the position and the potential approach.

3 Making the case for greater infrastructure delivery

It is clear that infrastructure improvement can unlock potential in places but, in many cases, the cost of delivery can undermine the business case. As part of this increasing issue, we will discuss methods of delivery and considerations in capturing benefits to make the case for greater infrastructure delivery to support and drive growth.

4 R&D as a mechanism to drive local innovation and change trajectory of place

The UK continues to identify the strength of its research institutions and the innovation created. Successive governments have tried to improve the track record of economic growth driven by this activity, but with only limited success. We will explore this issue in-depth and the approaches which can be taken to support failing places.

5 Re-emergence of places when dominant industries decline 

For decades, re-inventing the economic function of locations has created issues for policymakers – perhaps most prominently after coal closures in the 1980s and 90s. Economic re-alignment is likely to impact on more places in the future and one area that has both witnessed and begun to address this change is Teesside. We will look at this case and the aspects that need to be considered for effective response.

6 Delivering clean growth

The commitment to net zero and the climate change emergency should be driving considerable economic change and also offer some local economic development opportunities. The pace of change will need to increase to achieve the stated commitments. We will consider some of the interventions required.

7 Recognising the impact of health and productivity

The development of Local Industrial Strategies started to pick up on the themes of health and productivity with Greater Manchester, in particular, focusing on the impact of health on regional economic performance. The agenda has been further picked up by the Levelling Up White Paper and we will discuss the impacts and what can be undertaken to drive improvement.

8 Place-based impact investment

The White Paper has identified the scale of institutional investment within the UK and the force for good that could be achieved by spreading more widely, including the specific projects considered for investment. We will consider the schemes which could benefit and the approach that could be taken with institutional investors.

9 Support required by business to deliver healthy and inclusive growth

Economic growth will only be achieved through a strong private sector and thriving business base. We will examine the approach that can be taken in delivering a stronger business support environment – what key aspects are required, and what are less important.

Nigel Wilcock is Executive Director of the Institute of Economic Development (IED). Book your place at the IED Annual Conference 2022 here.