The Chancellor put increased spending on public services at the heart of his levelling up vision, but was quiet on productivity
While the responsibility to produce the Levelling Up White Paper and deliver on it sits with the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who holds the purse strings ultimately holds the power. So in light of the delay to the white paper (now expected ‘by the end of the year’), what did we learn from yesterday’s budget?
Many of the announcements yesterday focused on improvements to local public services. The creation of the Early Life Support Scheme, investment in football pitches, the community renewal fund and the community support fund all pointed to a focus on increasing public services provision.
Meanwhile after much delay, there was some further detail given on the UK Prosperity Fund. It will focus on skills in deprived areas and will match funding previously received from the EU, with all nations and Cornwall set to receive the same allocations. More detail is expected later this year.
There was, on the face of it, good news for local government too, with a real terms increase in its spending for the next three years. The detail behind this is that it assumes that councils will increase council tax by the maximum amount without triggering a local referendum, and a good chunk of this will likely be swallowed up by social care.
There were a number of announcements and reannouncements on policies designed to improve productivity, such as R&D commitments, skills and transport infrastructure. But beyond the allocation of the transport monies for large city regions, there was no guidance given for how these policies will play out across the country to deal with the productivity challenges that underpin the need for a levelling up agenda.
There was though the highlighting of the underperformance of the UK’s largest cities outside of London in the budget document, as there was in the Prime Minister’s levelling up speech in July, nodding to Centre for Cities’ calculations. This, combined with the transport announcement, suggests that whatever will be said around productivity in the white paper will be said in the context of the different roles that different parts of the country play in the national economy. This would be much welcomed. Making sustained improvements to the economy don’t come through the announcements of pots of money to be spread out without any guiding strategy. It is done through the combination of a number of pots of money in particular places.
It’s also worth noting that, while reasonable sums have been announced to date, levelling up will need to be backed with considerable sums of money over a long-term period. That money was not forthcoming yesterday. This is important for the commitments made to increase spending on public services – these will ultimately need to be paid for through increases in productivity.
The Chancellor was at pains in his speech to point to how policies to level up applied to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with an extra £8.7 billion on average to the devolved administrations being the headline figure. This explicit linking of levelling up and the Union follows the shifting of the responsibility on the Union to DLUHC. So while much of the narrative to date on levelling up has focused on the Red Wall, we should expect to see much more explicit references to Scotland in particular in the white paper.
This is good – improving the economic performance of Glasgow in particular must be a key priority of levelling up to spread prosperity and improve UK productivity. The complicating factor is that many of the policy levers that will be pulled under the banner of levelling up are devolved matters, limiting what the UK Government can do directly.
Yesterday’s document also reiterated the commitment to greater devolution in England. While there was no further detail – not unexpected in a Budget document that focuses on money – it signposted once again that plans will be set out in the white paper to go further on devolution in places that already have it in place, and open it up to places that don’t. This again would be very welcome (as would similar steps in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
Following the money gives a good sense of what we should expect in the delayed Levelling Up White Paper. We now wait for what Michael Gove will set out with the budgets he’s been given.
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