Levelling up

Earlier this year, the Government published its long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper, framed as a ‘plan to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of it’. The paper presents an ambitious, decade-long policy agenda to change the UK’s economic geography and narrow the country’s regional inequality.

Explore the questions below for Centre for Cities’ thinking and analysis.

What progress has been made on levelling up?

The publication of the Levelling Up White Paper has been followed by more than 100 days of inaction, with the Government showing very little progress on delivery.

Centre for Cities has three suggestions for how to kickstart the agenda going forwards:

  • Don’t confuse the cost of living crisis with the levelling up challenge
  •  Backfill on the detail of specific policy announcements made in the white paper
  • Show progress on the devolution framework

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What did the Queen’s Speech mean for levelling up?

The Queen’s Speech on 10 May 2022 included the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, outlining measures in the levelling up agenda that require legislation in order to be delivered.

Focusing on two of the four levelling up objectives, namely empowering local leaders and improving pride of place, this bill proposed;

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Will levelling up work?

To assess whether the Levelling Up White Paper measures up against its core goal to spread opportunity more equally across the UK, Centre for Cities interrogated the publication against five criteria.

We looked at whether there was a clear mission statement; if the White Paper was strategic; what evidence there was of a long-term plan and long-term funding; and if there were clear metrics for measuring success. Our recommendation is that the paper commits to a period of consultation over the coming months, to sharpen up the arguments in it and set out what it wants to do beyond 2030.

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What should levelling up achieve?

Based on Centre for Cities’ comprehensive body of research on levelling up, we have summarised two overarching goals of what the Government’s flagship policy agenda should strive to achieve for people and places across the UK.

  • Levelling up should improve standards of living across the country, narrowing the divergence between areas in issues such as health, education and public service provision.
  • Levelling up should help every place to reach its productivity potential. Levelling up means different things for different areas, it can’t mean making everywhere the same, because different places play different roles in the economy. Our research goes into greater detail exploring why big cities are the most promising places for levelling up.

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How should levelling up be measured?

Clear metrics are crucial to the success of the Government’s flagship policy agenda. We have outlined three key metrics that will ultimately measure whether levelling up has been achieved.

  • Reduce the share of people without the equivalent of five good GCSEs to the current national average in every local authority that currently sits above it
  • Increase life expectancy to the current national average in every local authority that currently sits below it
  • Bring all lagging places up to their productivity potential with a particular focus on raising the contribution of the UK’s largest cities

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Where needs to be levelled up?

Cities and large towns in Northern England and the Midlands are among the places most in need of levelling up. Many lag far behind places in the Greater South East of England on a range of levelling up measures. For example:

  • Health: the average male resident in Westminster lives 10 years longer than someone in Glasgow local authority.
  • Skills: In 2019, 30 per cent of working-age people did not have five good GCSEs or equivalent in Barrow-on-Furness, and 22 per cent had degree. This compares to 9 per cent and 59 per cent respectively in St Albans.
  • Productivity: on average, a worker in Milton Keynes produced in three days what a worker in Blackburn takes five days to produce in 2018.

The North lags the South on a range of indicators

Source: ONS

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Who is responsible for levelling up?

Levelling up has been referred to as the defining mission of Boris Johnson’s Government. The department responsible for the delivery of the flagship policy agenda is the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, led by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove.

Centre for Cities analysis – drawing on lessons from German reunification –  has highlighted that for levelling up to be successful and long-lasting the agenda should establish programmes that have cross-party support and so are independent of changes in Government.

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What does the Levelling Up White Paper mean for devolution?

At the centre of the Levelling Up White Paper is the systems reform chapter. This essentially marks the end of the beginning of devolution in England, confirming the status of mayors as permanent parts of the constitution in England and outlining a roadmap for English devolution which lays out the future of local government in England.

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What should the Levelling Up Fund be spent on?

To level up left behind places the Government should move away from centrally controlled funding pots and devolve power and money to local leaders. However, there are several areas where the Government and local areas should focus spending to level up:

  • Skills: Adult education spending should rise from 5 per cent of GDP to 7 per cent. This should be spent on a voucher for adults with few or no qualification to use for courses, more money for colleges and flexible courses. In schools the money should be used to expand the opportunity areas programme and improve access to extra-curricular activities.
  • Public services: The next Spending Review should end austerity for local service provision, especially local government spending. It should commit to year on year real-terms increases over the cycle of the next Spending Review.
  • Transport: All metro mayors should bring their buses under public management through the franchising powers they already hold. The Government should extend franchising powers to all areas. In places where the transport system is under pressure, the Government should invest in new infrastructure. The Government should accept the National Infrastructure Commission’s recommendation for an extra £31 billion of funding for priority cities outside London.
  • City centres: Money should be spent on making city centres more attractive places to do business through a £5 billion City Centre Productivity Fund.
  • R&D spending: The Government should focus increased R&D spending in the places where it is most likely to have an impact – places where innovation is already happening.  Because of their scale, large cities are the most obvious candidates for this.

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Analysis | Levelling Up White Paper

Following the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper, Centre for Cities research team provided commentary on its contents from a range of different urban policy perspectives.

Research | Core levelling up work

A collection of our most prominent work on the Government’s levelling up agenda, covering the nature of the challenge faced, proposing actionable policy solutions and offering a framework for success.

So you want to level up?

Paul Swinney

In advance of the Government’s forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper, this briefing sets out what the levelling up agenda should aim to achieve and a strategy for achieving it.

Briefing 17 Jun 2021

Insight | Levelling up lessons from Germany

Centre for Cities’ recent research has explored in-depth the lessons that policymakers can learn from the German experience when it comes to levelling up the UK economy.

City Minutes | How to level up the UK

Our levelling up podcast mini-series explored the regional inequalities that different parts of the UK face, with a focus on which policies the Government should implement to bridge these divides and level up the country.

Events | The levelling up challenge

Our levelling up events have welcomed city leaders, policy makers and leading thinkers to unpick the levelling up dilemma from various angles.

Our work on levelling up the UK

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