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  • Writer's pictureJohn Copps

Levelling Up White Paper: from slogan to manifesto for domestic policy

The Levelling Up White Paper answers the charge that 'levelling up' lacks detail, but its main role is to marshal existing policy into a clearer narrative.

More than two years after the Conservative government’s election victory, we now have the detail on its central domestic pledge to ‘level up’.

And at 332 pages (plus a technical annex), no one can complain the White Paper lacks content.

Since the term was first used, ‘levelling up’ has faced criticism from all directions that it is ‘a slogan’, ‘lacks substance’ or ‘is difficult to see how you do without also levelling down’. The government’s White Paper aims to counter these criticisms.

What can we learnt from the document? What is levelling up and how much of a guiding principle will it be, not just for the eponymously named department, but for the whole of government?

From my reading, I don’t think it is right to describe levelling up as a ‘policy’. Rather, it seems to be a framework that contains many of the government’s existing ideas - albeit fleshed out with some more detail. If this is true then perhaps it is not surprising that there is no new funding attached to it.

The White Paper is a manifesto for domestic action across a bewildering number of areas from libraries to home ownership, the structure of local government, and investment in renewables. An impressive amount of work has gone into gaining agreement on such a broad scope, cutting across every domestic government department.

A lot of the new material is very technical. There are commitments to ‘hardwiring spatial considerations into decision making and evaluation’, ‘improved transparency about place-based spending’, and ‘streamlining the funding landscape’. There’s plenty of analysis too: more than 100 pages of background, dozens of maps and a comprehensive history lesson (my favourite part of which is the list of the largest cities in the world since 7,000 BC).

The centre piece of the document are the twelve ‘missions’, a set of targets guiding the UK’s approach to levelling up over the next decade. The aim is to ‘boost productivity’, ‘spread opportunity and improve public services’, ‘restore local pride’, and ‘empower local leaders and communities’ all feel like the right ones.

The document refers to accountability no fewer than 41 times but the missions don’t expire until 2030, well after the next election. No matter how right and good the missions are, it is a peculiar thing to be bringing out mid-way through a parliamentary term.

The White Paper is hosted on the ‘devolution’ part of the website. Perhaps this is a useful hint at some of the more immediate action that could flow from the paper. In the introduction, the Prime Minister promises to ‘usher in a revolution in local democracy’. Later, the paper provides a three-level ‘devolution framework’ – with a directly elected mayor overseeing a county area as Level 3 and a ‘joint committee’ of councils in an area as Level 1 – but explains that ‘government will not impose top-down restructuring of local government’. In doing this, it dangles the prospect of real change without full committing.

Overall, I can’t avoid the conclusion that the White Paper is largely a technical document. Most of the eye-catching pledges have been made already, and its chief role seems to be to marshal those into a coherent, inclusive narrative. Perhaps that is why the media struggled to find a stand-out headline on the day of its publication.

But this doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t make a significant impact. Strikingly, it outlines a programme for the whole of government rather than a conventional department-focused white paper. Whilst the diagnosis of the problem and the ambition are clear, the question of ‘how’ will need more detail and a raft of subsequent white papers.

How soon will we know if levelling up is successful at shifting the economic centre of gravity in the UK? The ‘missions’ might be set for 2030 but, before then, we can look forward to new activity inspired by the government’s call to action.

Read more on Mutual Ventures’ work on Levelling Up here.


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