Event Summary – Achieving Levelling-up: the Structures and Processes Needed

November 2020 – Ben Glover, LIPSIT Researcher

On 18th November 2020, the LIPSIT (Local Institutions, Productivity, Sustainability and Inclusivity Trade-offs) project – a collaboration between the cross-party think tank Demos and the Universities of Birmingham, Cardiff, Surrey and Warwick – launched new research. It finds there is zero chance of ‘levelling-up’ working without significant changes to the current system.

Achieving Levelling-Up finds there are a number of barriers to tackling regional inequality which urgently need to be tackled, including wasteful processes in local and national institutions, a lack of long-term strategy due to fragmented funding from central government, and a large vacuum of accountability of those who are currently responsible for delivering growth, such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and Combined Authorities (CAs). In order to address these, the report recommends a process for central government. These steps would provide a more successful framework to implement the Government’s flagship levelling-up agenda.

To discuss our findings we convened a panel discussion on 18th November, bringing together a number of current and former policy makers. We were delighted to be joined by Lord Jim O’Neill, former Goldman Sachs Chief Economist, HM Treasury minister and Northern Powerhouse architect; Professor Donna Hall CBE, Chair of New Local and Bolton NHS Foundation Trust; and Jamie Driscoll, mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority.

The panellists welcomed the findings of the report, agreeing it was a useful contribution to the debate. Jamie Driscoll in particular highlighted the importance of local authority capability to levelling-up, citing the recent experience of Croydon Council as a sign of the challenges faced by local authorities. Donna Hall suggested that our report was as much about relationships as processes: what we were calling for would require a complete shift in trust levels between the centre and local. Jamie Driscoll agreed, arguing that micromanagement of local institutions by Whitehall is a barrier to change.

There was less certainty over whether the government is still committed to levelling up. Jim O’Neill highlighted that though the government talks about it endlessly, it has made much less discernible progress on levelling-up; understandably coronavirus has played a part in this, but the government’s recent record on the matter is still disappointing. Jamie Driscoll described how while for political reasons the government would love to ‘level-up’, they’re intimidated when they speak to local policy makers on the ground and realise how extensive their knowledge is of local areas. He also added that ministerial buy-in to the agenda is extremely varied: some really get it whereas others are blockers to progress.

Throughout the discussion there was a fairly high level of consensus on what is needed. This included greater single-pot funding; more resources for local authorities to build capability; and stronger accountability at a local level to drive better decision making. This is somewhat reassuring given the fairly wide range of backgrounds of panellists: a former minister in a Conservative government, a former council CEO and a current Labour mayor. So given this consensus, why has there been such little progress?

Jamie Driscoll argued this can in part be explained by organisational inertia and the fact that the UK has faced significant disruptions to policy making in recent years: Brexit, two general elections and now Covid.

Others highlighted a lack of high-level political commitment. Jim O’Neill argued that to drive levelling up successfully, you need a Prime Minister totally committed to the agenda and with the ability to push across the many government departments – up to nine! – that must be corralled. Similarly, Donna Hall argued that achieving levelling up requires bold constitutional reform that demands real political courage: is someone willing to do this?

Change is needed at an official level too. Jim O’Neill also highlighted the need for a total attitude shift among senior civil servants in Whitehall, who generally don’t trust local authorities to spend effectively: a real barrier to the meaningful devolution needed for levelling-up. In particular, he highlighted how Manchester’s devolution deal only succeeded due to extensive efforts by local officials to persuade Whitehall they could be trusted.

These points serve as an important reminder that achieving ‘levelling-up’ will be no walk in the park; it requires us to push against strong and persistent economic and political trends that have been blowing in one direction for decades. But as Donna Hall put it to close our discussion, there are grounds for cautious optimism if the diverse range of voices committed to levelling-up come together in a ‘social movement’ for change.