Levelling Up will only succeed if public services are at the centre of the government’s plan
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
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Local leadership from public service organisations can drive the process of Levelling Up argues John Copps.
At the moment Levelling Up is more slogan than substance. In September, No.10 moved to change that, putting its most experienced Cabinet Minister in charge of the souped-up, freshly-christened Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities. Once the name plates have been changed, its explicit role will be to come up with a plan to ‘Level Up’ the country.
So far, Levelling Up has been defined mostly in terms of reducing geographical difference. In the Prime Minister's speech on 15th July he said:
the UK had and has a more unbalanced economy than almost all our immediate biggest competitors… and when I say unbalanced I mean that for too many people geography turns out to be destiny
He then went on to argue how Levelling Up needs to impact a wide range of aspects of our lives:
…we will have made progress in levelling up when we have begun to raise living standards, spread opportunity, improved our public services and restored people’s sense of pride in their community.
Despite this, government action on Levelling Up to date has focused almost entirely on infrastructure and assets – mainly through the £4.8bn committed in centrally-determined grant funding allocated for local high streets, transport and culture. To deliver the ambitions stated above, this is clearly only the start.
A weakness of this approach is the reliance on a strategy of ‘Whitehall knows best’, which leaves power in the hands of politicians and civil servants in Westminster. Local leaders grumble that this doesn’t give them the freedom they need, discourages partnership working and has them jumping through hoops rather than focusing on a longer-term strategy.
So, what else is needed to achieve Levelling Up?
I think it needs an explicit focus on the role of public services. COVID-19 taught us that strong civic institutions are required for a strong economy and society, and any strategy to level up that doesn’t appreciate this is likely to miss the mark.
Often in areas most in need of levelling up, the public sector is a huge part of the landscape. Councils, NHS trusts and other public bodies are at once major employers, service providers, and purchasers of goods, supporting an ecosystem of businesses and community organisations around them.
To use a fashionable term, these organisation can and should be ‘anchor institutions’. Local government is already very conscious of this role, but NHS organisations and others don’t always appreciate their influence in the local area.
Back to the Prime Minister’s Levelling Up speech: he argues that the most important factor in levelling up – ‘the magic sauce’ – is great local leadership. Levelling Up needs strong public services that advocate for the places they are based, but to do this effective needs central government to give them permission, by devolving power and money to local decision-makers to work together.
To do this, local areas need a Levelling Up plan. This plan should incorporate all public service institutions, alongside other their partners in the private and not-for-profit sectors, to show how devolved power and money will make a difference to the opportunities, sense of pride in place, and living standards of local people. Alongside ‘quick wins’ in funding for assets and infrastructure, these plans need to be long-term and include investment in early intervention for children, skills and training for adults, building social capital, and action on the social determinants of health. Added together, this can pay dividends for well-being, jobs and prosperity.
For Levelling Up to succeed, public services must be an integral part. With the right backing, and permission from the centre, local leadership can and will make a real difference in helping towns, cities and regions throughout the UK be more successful.
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