Sir Robert Buckland QC MPFormer Secretary of State for Justice and MP for South Swindon
Weighing in at over 300 pages and just under 3lb in weight, the Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper, published by Michael Gove’s eponymous department in early February, was supposed to be the political event of 2022. Sadly, since then, the world has changed and it is the levelling of towns and cities in Ukraine by Putin’s invading forces that rightly claims our overwhelming attention.
The levelling up agenda, however, cannot wait.
This is why the White Paper was so eagerly anticipated and certainly there is much good in it. Its fundamental ambition is to create a country where people with talent and ambition no longer have to leave their locality in order to succeed. The aims aren’t solely economic, either. Health, safety and well-being, plus pride in place are included in the indexes of success.
Crucially, the White Paper acknowledges that achieving these ambitions will require all layers of government, civil society and the private sector. The need for local performance to be visible and monitored is emphasised, as is more devolution. These are the Paper’s commanding heights.
As we descend into the detail however, the picture becomes less clear.
What is Levelling Up?
Chapter One is mainly an assimilation of domestic data and some useful international examples. To work out geographical disparities, the Paper outlines the six “capitals” or drivers of growth. They are: physical, intangible, human, financial, social and institutional. The section on local growth policy makes the important point that without five “foundations”, then such policies are likely to fail. The five are: long term programmes with clear and consistent objectives; strategic coordination across public, private and voluntary sectors; local decision-making; evaluation and monitoring of the programme; clear national and local accountability for outcomes.
In Chapter Two, the five pillars of reform are set out: a mission-oriented approach to policy making; a reorientation of central government decision-making; greater empowerment of local government decision-making; better use of data and transparency locally and enhanced accountability and transparency of the new system.
The Levelling Up Missions are outlined on pages 120/121. There are twelve missions, contained within four focus areas, which are firstly: to Boost productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in those places where they are lagging. Within this area are four missions, relating to living standards, R&D, Transport infrastructure and digital connectivity.
The second focus area is: to spread opportunities and improve public services, especially in those places where they are weakest, with four missions based on education, skills, health and well-being.
The third focus area is: to restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost, with three missions covering pride in place, housing and crime.
Finally, the last focus area is: to empower local leaders and communities, especially in those places lacking local agency, with a mission to deliver devolution deals to every part of England that wants one by 2030.
These are missions that apply to the entire United Kingdom. Each mission is to meet its target by 2030.
Effective measurement of outcomes
With targets, come metrics. In this regard the White Paper does not disappoint.
To measure performance, there will be a list of metrics as set out in the technical annex, which runs to 54 pages. Amongst the metrics are measurements such as the extent of the disability employment gap, the rate of homicides and the rate of assaults involving a sharp weapon within the under 25s age group. It is in the Annex that we get closest to the hard and fast ways of measuring outcomes and therefore the lives improved by the levelling up agenda.
It is the strongest part of the White Paper.
On page 122, we see a proper acknowledgement of the need to improve central government decision-making. Firstly, there is a need for a clearer rationale for government spending which has often been geographically uneven. Reforms to the Treasury Green Book process have been carried out, with requirements for the geographic impact of proposals now integrated within the process.
Secondly, a better incorporation of local involvement in policy initiatives, with Levelling Up Directors working with local leaders and agencies as a single point of contact on projects. Thirdly, improved co-ordination of central government policies at local level, with a complex and overlapping funding landscape with separate pots of resource that fail to join up. There will be a plan to streamline the funding landscape this year. Fourthly, a decrease in the distance between national officials and those affected locally by their decisions – a need to do things with local areas, not to or for them.
Grasping the nettle of local government reform
On the question of devolution and local decision-making, the Government has shied away from reform of existing local government structures, preferring to increase the proportion of England covered by devolution deals and regional Mayors, with a more consistent set of national criteria, such as a minimum of 500,000 per area.
This is a shame. Grasping the nettle of local government reform is not easy, but once again an opportunity to create more strategically appropriate unitary authorities seems to have been lost.
One bright spot for Local Government and local actors more generally comes at the end of Chapter Two. There it makes useful reference to the need to improve the range and depth of data at a subnational level, with a new Subnational Data Strategy and Spatial Data Unit being launched. The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) new Subnational Data Explorer will increase transparency. In line with the drive to increase accountability, there will be a statutory duty to report on levelling up progress annually and a new Advisory Council will be set up to provide independent expert advice.
This data will be useful to local areas, politicians, papers and councils. In the long run it may cause the Government a headache, but it will give agency to policy makers locally and lead to real progress on the agenda as a whole.
It is all in the delivery
What, then, does all of this actually mean for local delivery? I think that the best way to approach this is to look at the metrics and match proposals to their delivery.
Take Mission One, for example. A key metric for the rise of employment and productivity by 2030 is the disability employment gap. 8 out of 10 of the general working age population are in employment. For disabled people, that is 5 out of 10. For autistic people, it is a shocking 2 out of 10. It seems to me that programmes designed to support autistic people into employment and to ensure that they remain in work are not only going to help close this gap but could help with other metrics as well.
In addition, take Mission five, relating to school standards. A reduction in persistent absences for all pupils and disadvantaged/vulnerable cohorts of children looks to be an incredibly challenging task. With earlier health interventions however, I believe that the underlying causes of absence can be dealt with at source. There are other examples, for example local transport, which a regional or local delivery agency could use to frame a programme of levelling up improvement measures.
A relentless focus on the metrics not only makes sense from a process point of view but is a focus on the right priorities for our communities.
A careful look at this White Paper reveals a clear way forward.
Levelling Up Commission
Chaired by former Secretary of State, Sir Robert Buckland QC MP and a committee of local and regional government leaders, the Levelling Up Commission intends to consider ways to implement the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper and subsequent Bill from the perspective of local and regional government, Too often the Levelling Up agenda is something being done ‘to and for local and regional government, the Commission intends to make sure it is done with and by’ them.
Through roundtable meetings with MPs and senior leaders of local and regional government from across the UK, the Commission intends to set out a series of recommendations to deliver the 12 national ‘Missions’ through system change, boosting pay and productivity, spreading opportunities, improving public services and restoring local pride.
To find out more about the Commission, please visit Curia.