Level up that vision thing

The summer season is upon us and it feels life is back in some kind of rhythm, no matter how stilted it seems, a fortnight away from the full relaxation of lockdown. At national political, the end of term could be marked by the possible arrival of the much-awaited levelling up white paper and the expectation the Housing & Planning Bill will be released before school’s out.

With this in mind, this week Localis summoned a group of experts to decode what we can finally understand about the future of local economic growth policy under the all-embracing aegis of ‘levelling up’.

Our panel included Cllr Ben Bradley MP (Con), who since May now twin hats as parliamentarian for early ‘red wall’ seat of Mansfield with leading Nottinghamshire CC, the inimitable Professor Tony Travers and Catherine West MP, the former leader of Islington LBC who now sits as Labour MP for Hornsey & Wood Green and is a member of the all-party parliamentary group for devolution.

The consensus seems to be that the visible evidence of what Ben Bradley described as “lots of shiny things to point to”, short-term boosts to high-street renewal won’t drive long-term change. The hope has to be that the white paper may balance ‘shiny projects’ with long-term support and coherent framework to employment and skills.

According to Tony Travers the underlying skills challenge will be to change the cultural approach to post-school education. In effect, affording parity of esteem to non-university education as a way to equalize skills provision across the country in the hope of attracting footloose companies to invest in left behind areas.

For Catherine West, the squeeze on further education puts the onus on mayors and local leaders to ensure the best use of local expenditure to galvanise the skills agenda, and the forging of better alliances among colleges, local authorities and the use of the apprenticeship levy. Is every single penny of local procurement promoting a living wage to get people out of poverty? Are major providers of local services benefiting from procurement helping people and how many apprenticeships are being delivered for every £1m spent on local schemes?

There was a consensus that there needs to be a sense of realism as to what can be achieved within narrow timeframes. The emphasis on competitive funding from Whitehall as the financial means to rebalance the economy has reached its limits. Little pots of cash won’t be enough to overcome the massive change in retail and the central state lacks the means to rekindle every struggling high street, argued Tony Travers.

He also suggested that given the centralized nature of our politics, the process of competing for limited available resources risks England descending into a place of warring areas and in this sense unravelling the government’s desire to support the union.

On which point, although the Barnett Formula is here to stay, given the pledge made by the main political party leaders on the eve of the Scottish referendum in 2014, the question of equalizing opportunities for the East Midlands – whose GDP per head is around 15% lower than that of Scotland’s but whose public spending per head is 30% less, seems on the face of it an insuperable challenge.

As a local leader in an area lacking a strategic devolution settlement or combined authority, the challenge for Ben Bradley’s Nottinghamshire is how to manage complexity of ‘oven ready’ projects that align with government objectives, planning for infrastructure that deliver more than creating sheds outside motorway spurs, integrated transport and rail plans and the opportunity of an inland freeport.

Until we have the details of the white paper, better partnership working can go so far. What would be helpful is exploiting convening power across local government, industry and education. But there are also limits to what convening power alone can achieve, and skills, regeneration and transport to name but three areas require a fully weighted devolution imprint.

It was also felt with the autumn spending review presents an opportunity to align funding with the shaping of local economic strategy.

In Bradley’s estimation, local government can’t survive on small pots of money or build long term services that residents can build a relationship with if reliant on year-to-year funding.

Local government needs a three to four year settlement, and one year arrangements are “bad for rationality,” Tony Travers asserted.

More money isn’t always the answer, but it would be good for residents’ feelings if there was a tilt back to better resourcing of environmental and planning services. This is especially the case to address the issues they see outside their front door such as potholes and the conditions of streets – and about which they harangue their councillors.

Spending reviews can be excellent means of capturing the attention of ministers to address long-term structural issues, said Catherine West. Given the decision to scrap the former industrial strategy, she said there is a role for local government to step in and reclaim funding for further education and then work with local bodies such as chambers of commerce to plug existing skills gaps. The scare tactic would be to worry ministers that without such a local approach to addressing local labour markets, wages risk going through the roof.

The Health & Care Bill being introduced through the Commons will not align with the spending review plans, she said, but represents, perhaps, an opportunity to embed a new and sustainable approach to the social care workforce as far as wages, career plans and training pathways are concerned.

Ultimately, the ambitions of the levelling up agenda differ very little, on the surface, from repeated previous attempts in the post-war period to rebalance the economy and improve opportunities. The trouble is that previous attempts – witness New Labour’s creation of the regional development agencies – were unable to answer the question.

In which case, a sense of projected future, a shared vision of what Britain could look like and how it would be described in a decade’s time, say, would make it easier for us collectively and individually to give our assent. In our current straits, do we have time and space and generosity of heart and mind to plot what President George H W Bush once derided as that “vision thing”?

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis

You can see the debate ‘Level best? Decoding local growth policy’ here.

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle, 8 July 2021