Last week, Chamber UK hosted a panel at the Conservative Party Conference to discuss levelling up and how it’s working in local areas. The panel was chaired by Aubrey Allegretti, the Political Correspondent for the Guardian, and featured current and former Members of Parliament, a Council Leader and the Secretary of State for Wales.
The panel faced pre-determined questions on the notion of levelling up and how they saw it working in both rural and urban areas. Following that, all four panellists discussed how levelling up was impacting their local areas.
The second half of the panel focused on audience questions, with those in attendance being offered the opportunity to grill each of our panellists.
One of the first questions put to the panel was in regards to the money that has been set aside to implement levelling up changes across the country. If the Olympic Games had been given a budget of over £8bn over a decade ago, why is the levelling up agenda receiving £4bn less?
Welsh Secretary, Sir Robert Buckland KC MP said:
“I think you’ve got to start somewhere. I think we need to remember that levelling up, while it’s a long-term process, the white paper is quite ambitious when you look at the 2030 targets. While £4.8bn, in some respects, isn’t a huge figure compared to what other projects got I think it’s a very important start.”
Leader of Breckland Council, Sam Chapman-Allen, said:
“We’ve got to prove to the government that local authorities are best placed to get this work done. Time and time again we talk about what is the return on investment, but we aren’t going to be able to prove that on some occasions and some of those are ten-year lead times. Release the shackles and allow us to get on with it.
There were many councillors in the audience at this event and as such one of the main themes throughout the audience questions was that local councils feel like they aren’t being trusted to make key levelling-up decisions for their local area. If they know what needs to be done more than those in Westminster, then why aren’t they being trusted to make important decisions?
Sir Robert Buckland said:
“Local government funding is an issue that has bedevilled all governments of all colours. I’m not going to pretend that I have a magic solution, what I do know is that the point you make about local governance are really powerful ones.
If you look at the white paper, it talks about the need for a streamlined approach, it talks about there being a need for greater trust. Through the special point of contact mechanism, we can change some of those procedures to allow far free-er and more frequent contact which will give local councils far more autonomy and trust.”
Former Deputy Speaker Natascha Engel said:
“Over a long period of time now, government after government have taken more power away from local councils because they’re worried that they can’t do things for themselves. The result of that has been a massive de-skilling of councils to the point where people no longer see being a Councillor as a rewarding profession.
If national government treat people like adults they’ll behave like adults but if you treat them like children then they’ll behave like children.”
In light of the mini-budget announced two weeks ago, which outlined plans to cut taxes of the wealthiest by 5%, many people in the country believed that the government had given up on their levelling up plans.
Conservative MP for Wolverhampton North-East, Jane Stevenson, said:
“I agree that we have to go for growth, but optics matter. Sadly, the 45p to 40p tax cuts overshadowed so many other fantastic things that were announced which do benefit many other people. I’m disappointed that it got the amount of coverage it did when actually it’s not the whole picture.”
Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, has since announced a u-turn in regard to the 5% tax cut for the super-rich.
Given the macro economic struggles that the current Government are facing down it is perhaps understandable that levelling up is languishing on the back burner. What was made clear by the leadership of local councils at this meeting and throughout conference was that they want to be able to control their budgets and level up in ways they see fit. There is considerable scepticism at central government level that local authorities can be trusted to make their own priorities which has lead to spending being divided up into ‘pots’, earmarked for specific uses.
This tension means we have a central government encroaching ever closer to local economies and local government that is not always invested in the central vision of “levelling up”. Resolving this tension would be a good place for the Government to start even if money for project is tight.
To find out more about Curia’s Levelling Up Commission, visit: https://chamberuk.com/levelling-up-commission/