Localis analysis of the May 2022 Queen’s Speech

Localis analysis of the May 2022 Queen’s Speech

The policies announced in today’s Queen’s Speech are designed to do three things. In reverse order of national importance these are:

  • to provide some red meat for a weary and irritated party base;
  • to chart a path to prosperity which might unite a kingdom which appears, after last week’s local elections, to be more divided than it was before the all-encompassing Brexit issue split us into two easy-to-manage tribes;
  • and finally, to avert the socio-economic catastrophe on the brink of which our country appears to teeter. To differing degrees, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill as outlined in the speech and its supporting documentation speaks to all three.

The Conservative majority of 2019 depends on more than rows over protests and free speech on university campuses. To keep together the electoral coalition the manifesto put together north and south, some traction, if not connection, must be felt by the public on the issue of economic rebalancing and regional development. This is the work of decades, no doubt, and has little directly to offer in terms of solutions to the growing cost-of-living crisis.  Yet the policies that will come to embody ‘levelling up’ are designed to shore up the national economy to external shock, and, therefore speak to this issue as well.

The issue most directly addressed by Levelling Up and all its associated political trimmings is the need to rebalance and, in a sense, reimagine the British economy and bring people together through mutual prosperity.

All parties, beers and curries aside, this remains the most important long-term policy challenge for the British state and the clearest imperative for empowering local leadership we have seen in decades. At Localis, we have been writing extensively on this subject in our reports since before the term ‘levelling up’ had much connotation outside of video games, and as such we have to take the emergence of a bill which so much as tries to address the issue as a positive. Below is a spot analysis of the bill’s key features which is based on recent Localis work on the areas of focus.

Mission critical

The background documentation to the speech begins by reiterating the commitment of government to the idea of levelling up being defined and evaluated through 12 cross-departmental ‘missions’.
The missions are designed to be monitored in a similar way to the Committee on Climate Change’s evaluation of UK net zero policy goals. The crucial difference however, between the need to level up across twelve separate data-lines and the existential threat of climate change, is that the latter can be boiled down to a simple and universally accepted metric: global heating and our contribution to it. The idea that the levelling up missions in their multiplicity and complexity can be monitored in the same way does not seem plausible, although time will tell.

As we pointed out in our analysis of the white paper, the one actor whose role Whitehall has failed to analyse correctly across the decades of regional development policy is Whitehall itself. There is no evidence to speak of that broad and overarching policy agendas can be managed across different government departments. Indeed, as the constant push and pull with Her Majesty’s Treasury has shown, it is hard enough to achieve consistency within one government.

A mayor by any other name

In one of the more hard-won concessions to localism of recent years, the supporting documentation to the speech makes clear that under new County Deals, local leaders will have be able to “reflect local preference…[in] directly elected leaders’ title”. Most readers of this analysis will be well aware of the long battle fought over the insistence of Whitehall that democratic accountability has precisely one form and it is the directly elected mayor sitting over a specified economic geography. While the shape of the model hasn’t changed, at least those party to County Deals might get to call their mayor something else, which is something.

The County Deals themselves, assuming the devolution framework laid out graphically in the Levelling Up White Paper remains unchanged, will lack crucial strategic powers over transport and spatial planning, but it is undeniable that they are a major step forward in extending devolution. We will have to wait for the bill itself to see whether there is any hope at all for local conglomerations which may wish to self-determine their existence outside of the existing county structure. However, all the signs so far are that districts and others will have to fall in line behind county leadership if any real powers are to be devolved. Following our report on Resetting the South East, Localis will continue to push for more flexibility in the devolution framework.

Here come the neighbourhoods

The promised boost to neighbourhood plans and the general push for greater involvement in the planning system is a positive step and one which should be welcomed. Despite what conventional wisdom might dictate, the housing crisis cannot be boiled down to any one single issue, not even the dreaded ‘NIMBYism’ which commentators have rushed to apply to this policy. In reality, as we examined in Building Communities neighbourhood plans have proven effective in cutting through local impasses and led to development in areas across the country from West Sussex to Cumbria. The process is not about giving locals carte-blanche to decide who builds what and where, but about bringing people into the planning process in a mature way, and devising a solution between community, council and developer which delivers housing with minimal disruption.

It is absolutely crucial that involvement in the planning system is extended, not further restricted, and as such we keenly await details on how the government intends to overcome issues like the capacity gap between areas when it comes to preparing and driving through neighbourhood plans.

Promise for premises

The powers handed to local authorities to deal with empty premises which hold up regeneration and keep high streets in stasis is significant and welcome. In our recent high streets work with Kent County Council, the issue was unanimously raised by stakeholders from local leaders to business representatives as a major barrier to recovery and renewal.
Yet passing the power into law will just be the beginning – when dealing with an issue like empty commercial property there are many interests at play, some of which are extremely well-funded and hard to pin down, meaning that the actual job of getting these empty units to rental auction may well prove a thorny task in practice. It is up to government and the detail of the bill to ensure that councils get the support they need to implement this important policy.

The also policy speaks to a wider, long-term realignment in how the high street is viewed, where it is no longer seen as merely a place for commerce but also as a public service in of itself, with an important stewardship role for the local state.

The usual problem

In the announced reforms to developer contributions, where councils will be paid a locally-set and non-negotiable levy rather than the existing section 106 and CIL obligations, DLUCH can be said to have truly pulled a rabbit out of a hat. They have somehow found a way, albeit modestly, to increase the revenue of many councils in the country. Still, the elephant in the room remains the total lack of meaningful funding for the agenda, even as public services continue to be stretched thin and the cost-of-living crisis mounts. Ultimately, the timing of the most recent spending review and consequent lack of Treasury commitment to the project may yet scupper the Levelling Up Agenda.  Beyond the inevitable splurge hanging gardens, it is hard to appreciate a revitalised high street, for example, when your tax burden is going up even as inflation hits the double figures.

Ultimately, how the crisis in living costs plays out over the summer is likely to be the main driver of political opinion across the country this year, taking primacy over the noble work of economic rebalancing or the lockdown-breaking antics of the various party leaders. Nevertheless, the slow emergence of a framework for a less centralised UK can be seen across these policy announcements. The question remains whether or not the economy – and the society which surrounds it – can be held together in the meantime.

Joe Fyans, head of research, Localis