Levelling up

On 2 February 2022, the Government published its long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper, presenting an ambitious, decade-long policy agenda to change the UK’s economic geography and narrow the country’s regional inequality.

Statement from Centre for Cities Chief Executive Andrew Carter:

In this white paper the Government recognised that bridging the country’s long-standing economic divides is its most important job. The focus on issues that really matter to people – education, pay, life expectancy – should be applauded. So, too, should its willingness to look beyond quick fixes and short-term political gimmicks.

That being said, a programme that makes the whole country more prosperous will need to last beyond 2030. It needs the backing not just from this Government, but also from future governments – irrespective of their political composition. Without this, it risks being discarded like past programmes when there is a change of Government. The onus is now on everyone to make it work.

Will levelling up work?

Centre for Cities has measured the effectiveness of the Levelling Up White Paper against five key tests.

Is there a clear mission statement?
Yes – the white paper may lack a crisp definition, but it does include 12 missions designed to act like anchors for policy.

Is it strategic?
Yes – the intention for it to be strategic is there, although if the white paper is designed to steer future government economic policy then it will need to be articulated with more clarity.

Is there a long-term plan?
No – the white paper doesn’t look beyond 2030 which is only eight years away. Centre for Cities research has shown that a much longer-term commitment will be needed for the agenda to be successful.

Is it backed with funding, and what are the mechanisms for spending it?
No – there is a notable lack of long-term funding and a missed opportunity to set out what outline funding would be put in place beyond 2025.

Are there clear metrics for measuring success?
Yes – there are 12 missions with targets to 2030 and a 50-page technical appendix with 49 metrics attached. However ultimately, the purpose of these metrics is blunted by poorly defined targets.
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What should levelling up achieve?

Based on our comprehensive body of research on levelling up, Centre for Cities has set out two goals of what the agenda should strive to achieve.

      • Levelling up should improve standards of living across the country: The goal of levelling up should be to narrow the divergence seen across the country in areas such as health, education and public service provision.
      • Levelling up should help every place to reach its productivity potential: levelling up the economy can’t mean making everywhere the same, because different places play different roles in the economy. While it should mean levelling up Manchester with Bristol, and Cumbria with Dorset, because of the inherent benefits that cities offer businesses, Manchester’s productivity potential should be bigger than Cumbria’s productivity potential. 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?

Ahead of the Levelling Up White Paper, Centre for Cities outlined three key metrics to measure the agenda’s success.

    • 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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Who is responsible for levelling up?

The Prime Minister has created a new Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, which is responsible for delivering the Levelling Up White Paper. He has appointed Michael Gove, MP for Surrey Heath, as Secretary of State and Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough, as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.
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When was the Levelling Up White Paper published?

The Levelling Up White Paper was published on Wednesday 2 February, 2022.

In advance of its publication, Centre for Cities spoke to three policy experts on what they had made of the levelling up debate so far.

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What does the Levelling Up White Paper mean for devolution?

The systems reform chapter is at the centre of the Levelling Up White Paper. It marks the end of the beginning of devolution in England, confirming the status of mayors as permanent parts of the constitution in England and setting out a roadmap for English devolution which sets out the future of local government in England.
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What did urban leaders want from the Levelling Up White Paper?

Centre for Cities has collated an anthology of short essays from eight mayors and urban council leaders on what they need from the Government’s upcoming white paper to help level up their cities. The contributions bring together perspectives from urban leaders right across England, reflect a breadth of political opinions and focus on practical measures that they say will level up their areas.
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What do the public think about levelling up?

In September 2021, Centre for Cities’ conducted polling in partnership with ITV News and FocalData to gain a deeper understanding of the public’s views on levelling up.

We found that 42% of the public understood what levelling up meant, but this varied in different nations, with people in Wales and Scotland reporting the lowest understanding of it (31% and 29% respectively).

In terms of public confidence in the Government’s flagship agenda, 42% of those polled lacked confidence that their area would be levelled up. This was highest in Scotland, Yorkshire and the Humber and North West England.

When it came to what people wanted the levelling up agenda to achieve, 48% of people ranked better job opportunities as a top priority, this was followed by town centre regeneration and local transport improvements.
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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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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

Skills and productivity in particular directly impact people’s personal prosperity: People in London are paid £16,150 more per year on average than people in Burnley.

Productivity across Great Britain, 2018

Source: ONS

Note: Four local authorities that border a city have been classed as more rural because of their size. These are County Durham, Northumberland, Scottish Borders and Powys.

The pandemic has made this north-south divide even worse. Our 2021 Cities Outlook research found that Covid-19’s economic damage makes the promise to level up the North and Midlands four times harder and risks levelling down prosperous places in southern England. Birmingham, Hull and Blackpool face the biggest challenges.

The impact of the pandemic on the UK job market

Source: ONS, claimant count March 2020 and November 2020, population estimates 2019. Data is not seasonally adjusted.

However, policy makers should not forget that some places in the south also need to be levelled up, particularly due to the pandemic. Many southern cities that were previously reliant on the aviation industry are now struggling – in particular Crawley, Slough and Luton.
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Levelling Up White Paper analysis

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

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 dilemma

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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