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Amongst the changes last month to rebrand MHCLG to the department for levelling up was that it took on responsibility not just for levelling up but for the Union too. This is interesting because much of the debate around levelling up has been an England-focused discussion, referring to the North and Midlands generally and the Red Wall specifically. Politically this makes sense in the context of the next general election but it ignores the political pressure building around a second independence referendum. The expanded responsibility of the department looks like it is addressing this second point head on.
Reflecting on the nature of the debate to date, the term levelling up certainly resonates the least with Scottish people – at 29 per cent, they were least likely to say they knew what levelling up meant out of all the UK’s nations and regions in a recent Centre for Cities poll. Under its new remit one of the tasks of DLUHC will no doubt be to change this, starting with the forthcoming white paper. How exactly it does this, given that a number of the levers it will pull are devolved responsibilities, remains to be seen.
So, if levelling up is rightly to go beyond just the borders of England – even if the responsibility of delivering this is unclear – what should levelling up in Scotland focus on?
To improve the Scottish economy, it should prioritise getting Glasgow to punch its weight economically. As the fourth largest city in the UK, it has a very important role to play in the national economy. But, like Manchester and Birmingham, it very much underperforms and trails its Western European counterparts.
This has big implications for the Scottish economy. Conservative estimates by Centre for Cities suggest that Glasgow’s economy is at least £7.3 billion per year (in 2018 prices) smaller than it should be. This output gap means that Scotland’s economy is 4.6 percent smaller than it should be year on year. That’s just shy of the total direct contribution of the oil and gas industry to the Scottish economy.
A skill shortage seems to sit at the heart of Glasgow’s struggles; it has the sixth largest share of its working age population that have no formal qualifications in the UK. As with Birmingham and Manchester, while its city centre economy has had a resurgence and is now home to many thousands of high-skilled jobs, it is too small to sufficiently lift up the rest of the city. Local transport seems to be less of a concern however – forthcoming work by Centre for Cities will show Glasgow’s public transport system to perform on a par with similar sized Western European cities.
This underperformance seems largely absent from Scottish political and economic debates. For example, much of the economic argument around whether independence is workable has focused on North Sea oil. This is of course a very valid point to raise, but the lack of discussion about improving the economic performance of Glasgow – a city that accounts for around a fifth of the whole economy – is conspicuous by its absence.
This needs to change, both in the context of improving economic opportunity in Scotland and addressing the UK’s weak productivity. Whoever is to deliver policies designed to level up in Scotland – be that the UK or Scottish Government – their efforts need to be centred on answering the Glasgow question.
Access to workers, and the skills of those workers, are two big differences between large cities in the UK, France and Germany.
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