Why ‘levelling up’ must be far more than ‘big society’ soundbite – Jonathan Werran

TODAY’S Queen’s Speech sees the Conservative government enjoy a position of dominance and power that, in some senses, defies any rational political analysis the best minds in the Westminster village can conjure.

How will Boris Johnson advance his levellimng up agenda after his party's Hartlepool by-election win?
How will Boris Johnson advance his levellimng up agenda after his party's Hartlepool by-election win?

But the purely rational can be overrated. Feelings, sentiments and pride matter. The party’s overwhelming control lies in the fact they occupy a broader, if not centre then certainly common ground, which defines the field of play.

A terrain which in England stretches across southern comfort heartlands that remain more economically right-wing than they are socially liberal, and now mopping up huge swathes of the Midlands and North that are more socially conservative than economically to the left.

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Having secured the hat-trick of Hartlepool as a Parliamentary constituency and the mayoral combined authorities of Tees Valley and the West Midlands, the question is what to do with this mandate before the next general election?

Jonathan Werran is chief executive of Localis, an independent think-tank.

All roads to the everywhere agenda which is ‘levelling up’. The White Paper – to be led by the Prime Minister – will focus on policy challenges involved in improving living standards, growing business and increasing and spreading opportunity, all amid a backdrop and backlog or repairing the damage wreaked by Covid to public services.

The clear and present danger for ‘levelling up’ as a catch-all term is that it becomes devalued and then derided as was the experience with David Cameron’s ‘big society’.

If there’s to be any hope of a quick and coherent impact from levelling up, it will have to be through sustained economic growth, the benefits of which are seen, experienced and appreciated by people where they live.

Last week in response to the Levelling Up White Paper, Localis, the think tank I work for, came up with some thoughts on why growth is as inseparable from devolution as fish is from chips. Our argument is that there should be a strict separation between short-term, community-led decision-making for town centre and high-street renewal – which boosts place prosperity – and long-term, high-value central government infrastructure strategies aimed at raising historic low-levels of productivity.

Tracy Brabin is the first metro meyor for West Yorkshire.

To this end, central government must get behind community control of high-street regeneration, accelerate devolved skills reforms and define a clear role for local authorities and their economic partners in driving economic development and meeting net zero targets.

On that vexed issue of local government reorganisation, our analysis questions whether driving economic recovery through changes of machinery to the local state is the most direct route. Clearly matters are being worked out in North Yorkshire as a considered process and must be allowed to work out. But one size will not comfortably fit all parts of the country.

Localis firmly believes that national recovery through building back better and ‘levelling up’ will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place. So, on the basis that we must trust in the new mayors to use their convening powers to get the local political economy around the table, how can the Levelling Up White Paper create maximum benefit for minimum effort? To build on the foundations laid out in the Plan for Growth, Localis recommends:

Create pathways to community autonomy as a vehicle for hyperlocal, small-scale and patient financing of regeneration.

Build a framework for devolution to Skills Advisory Panels to facilitate local collaboration between employers, providers and education authorities to further accelerate the push to improve skill levels.

Create a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for net zero.

Clarify and codify the role for existing institutions, particularly local authorities in Local Enterprise Partnerships – in driving economic development.

This is where we must pin our hopes upon Neil O’Brien to ride to the rescue in joining the dots. On account of the time, money, political capital and economic potential forever lost to the pandemic, we find ourselves at more of a crucial moment than we perhaps realise.

The moment calls for urgently aligning the agenda for devolution and decentralisation with that of growth and recovery.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive of Localis, an independent think tank.

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