Levelling up cannot just be about the North, peers are told

Levelling up “cannot just be about the North”, peers have heard, as an inquiry into what the phrase actually means got under way.

The House of Lords Public Services Committee yesterday took evidence in a session designed to define levelling up.

And Jonathan Webb, a Senior Research Fellow at the IPPR North think tank said: “It can't just be about the North.”

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Levelling up has been touted by the Government as a way of improving the lives of people in traditionally ‘left behind’ areas, and has been come to be understood in terms of the North/South divide and tackling regional inequalities.

Stock photo of Leeds city centre. Photo: PAStock photo of Leeds city centre. Photo: PA
Stock photo of Leeds city centre. Photo: PA

But Mr Webb said: “I think the levelling up debate has often been defined in relation to the North, and the North matters when you look at a lot of the things which we want to fix, through levelling up around regional productivity, around education provision, life outcomes, all those things, but I don't think it has to be confined to the North.”

Mr Webb said the phrase risks becoming “a rather nebulous concept, which then results in it being applied quite vaguely to chosen geographies”.

Professor Michael Kenny, director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University, added: “I think what's striking is that if you listen to Government at the moment, we get actually a range of different answers to the question of what levelling up is about, what the core ambitions are. And I think they range at one end of the spectrum to quite ambitious goals [...] right across to sometimes more narrowly conceived ideas that really this is about regional productivity and about evening out regional economic performance. And of course, there could be a range of things in between those two ends of the spectrum.”

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And Mr Webb said: “There's a bit of a problem that levelling up, I think, is often synonymous with the idea of investing in urban areas, raising left behind towns, and those types of places in the North of England.

“But when actually, there's a lot of rural areas, which in terms of outcomes you want to address through levelling up, things like improving connectivity, raising education, creating jobs in the local community and the local area, those are all areas which can benefit from levelling up agenda too.”

Former education secretary Justine Greening told peers “this is the moment for change” in the context of levelling up.

But she said there must be metrics by which progress can be tracked.

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And she said: “I think this is eminently possible, I think it’s absolutely vital, as has been said, because unless we have the right metrics to target ourselves against, then it's very hard to track any progress. I also think that this comes down to having a proper plan.”

Mr Webb added: “I think it's imperative that we move quickly from a focus on defining what levelling up means to coming up with actually concrete strategies which can achieve the outcomes that we want.”

While Ms Greening added: “I think a wider public really wants to see change on the ground, and they want to see a political system that's prepared to work more collaboratively on a common agenda, if that's what it takes to actually change things. And just in terms of the Government, I think there is a genuine interest in defining levelling up.

“I've had my discussions with government departments about what it might look like and I think there is a sense that it's a complex agenda, but it needs to now be broken down into some constituent parts that can help very different departments work out how they make their contribution to this.

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“What we can't do is almost see everyone go into a policy huddle for months and months and months on end, with no time then to deliver on the ground.

“I think the British public took a decision at the last election that levelling up matters, I think they do have a clear sense that it means equality of opportunity and doing what it takes to deliver that.

“And I think they now expect the collective political system actually, whether in Westminster, or at a more local level, to get on and deliver it, and I think that's what now needs to happen.”