In advance of the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper Centre for Cities set five tests to measure how effective it is as a strategy. So how does the paper measure up?
1. Is there a clear mission statement?
Over two years after Boris Johnson identified it as his flagship domestic policy, levelling up now finally has a definition, of sorts at least. There are 12 missions that are designed to act like anchors for policy, in the same way that the net zero target acts as an anchor for efforts to decarbonise the economy.
This doesn’t give a particularly crisp definition. But if you boil these missions down though it appears to amount to the following: Get every part of the country to reach their productivity potential (but note that different places have different potentials), and improve standards of living in places that are lagging behind. Centre for Cities called for both.
Verdict: Yes, but the question is whether this definition comes through clearly enough in the 432 page document. It certainly requires some work to get there.
2. Is it strategic?
The intention for it to be strategic is there. For example, in saying that every region should have a globally competitive city, the Government is saying it will make choices and trade offs. Achieving this would mean that while it would narrow inequalities between regions, it would – on a workplace basis – widen them within regions. But because not all workers live in the city they work, it would on a resident basis also increase prosperity across that region.
It’s fair to say though that the communication of this could be sharper. The preamble on the history of cities has drawn a lot of head scratching because it isn’t followed up with the consistent recognition of the current underperformance of the UK’s largest cities outside of London, and is confused with a great deal of analysis on a local authority and regional basis that doesn’t pull this thread through the first chapter. And while there is some policy preference given to big cities to address these challenges – three innovation accelerators in Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester and the previous announced City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements for example – there isn’t much beyond this.
If this is designed to steer future government economic policy then it will need to be articulated much more clearly.
From a quality of life perspective, the paper implicitly recognises that this trade off doesn’t exist in the same way. There is no reason in principal why life expectancy or basic skills level should be worse in one part of the country than in another. And so commitments to pull up struggling parts of the country irrespective of geography are sensible.
Verdict: Yes, you just need to search for it.
3. Is there a long-term plan?
The white paper becomes a bit unstuck at this point. It should be applauded for being specific in setting a date on when it wants to achieve its missions. And it should be applauded for looking beyond the next election. The problem is that it doesn’t look much further, aiming for 2030, just eight years away.
The divides seen across the country are at least 100 years in the making and have been the target of government policy for over 90. Solving this in eight would be quite some feat. Germany has been going at this for 30 years and still hasn’t brought the East up to the West.
4. Is it backed with funding, and what are the mechanisms for spending it?
To bring about change to such entrenched disparities is going to cost money. Germany spent €2 trillion on reunification and the job still isn’t finished. While it’s hard to say whether the UK would also need to spend exactly this amount, it should serve as a yardstick at least.
Unfortunately the lack of a long-term plan is backed with a lack of long-term funding. The Chancellor has been pretty strident in saying that all money for the next three years has already been allocated through last October’s spending review. So it is no surprise that there are no new pots of money announced beyond this.
But as levelling up should go beyond the current spending review period, there was an opportunity to set out what outline funding would be put in place beyond 2025. This is missing. The huge concern is that this signals that Treasury is not behind the agenda. And history tells us that that is the death knell to any policy plans.
5. Are there clear metrics for measuring success?
Ministers promised us there would be metrics and on the face of it we are spoilt. There are 12 missions with targets to 2030 and a 50 page technical appendix, with 49 metrics attached to them. This in itself is progress.
Labour MP Darren Jones has pointed out that many of the missions are very similar to those in Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy. This isn’t necessarily a problem – both documents are supposed to tackle long-term problems and so there should be an overlap.
What’s more troubling is that despite being promised otherwise, most of the targets in the white paper are just as vague as their predecessors. Having a whole host of metrics is of little use if the thing they are trying to measure are poorly defined.
For example, the term ‘significant improvement’ is used a number of times without defining what significant actually means. And on wages and productivity, the mission aims to increase them in all areas by 2030. But it doesn’t say by how much and whether this is in nominal or real terms. If wages in any part of the country are lower in nominal terms in 2030 than today then they need to strap themselves in for a pretty horrific next eight years.
Some others are better. Commitments to get 90 per cent of children up to the required standard of reading, writing and maths is much more focused. It is these more specific targets that future mission setting should aspire to.
Verdict: Yes, but their purpose is blunted by poorly defined targets
There are a number of good things in the paper. As well as the recognition of the different roles that different parts of the country should play in the national economy, the attempts to get Whitehall departments to think more spatially, the devolution framework to encourage more sensible local government boundaries and the emphasis on improving subnational data are all welcome. But the lack of Treasury backing poses the question that come a change in government, or a change of leader for that matter, will we start all over again?
The paper commits to a period of consultation over the coming months. The goal of this should be to sharpen up the arguments in it and setting out what it wants to do beyond 2030.