When a government has a major policy priority that requires action across several of the traditional silos of Whitehall, there are three ways of trying to better coordinate effort.
One approach is to co-ordinate better within the executive system of government – in the UK this would usually be done through Cabinet Committees and Sub-Committees. If it’s really an immediate, but short-term, priority, a temporary cabinet committee – like the two Covid-19 ones and the Health Promotion Taskforce – might be formed.
Another is to establish more ad-hoc coordination mechanisms to “join up government” (as the New Labour government called it). These can be inter-departmental task forces; a Cabinet Office “tsar” (someone brought in to coordinate action); periodic “cross-cutting” reviews; etc. Many would say some of the “celebrity” tsar appointments have been merely symbolic, and achieved very little.
Finally, government can create a mega-department that brings together all the major functions and structures needed for delivery.
This brings us to the newly-expanded Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), launched in September 2021. Is it a mega-department? The answer to that question is subtle.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DLUHC
DLUHC is not a brand-new creation. For decades there has been continuous pressure within central government to create larger departments, combining multiple functions with single structures. These were especially evident and explicit in the Wilson and Heath governments of the 1960s and 70s, but also in more recent administrations.
The main reasons favouring mega-departments are part-political and part-managerial. Cabinet government, so one argument goes, works best with a relatively small cabinet with all the main tasks of government represented within it. That leads to better informed, faster, decision making and implementation.
Some of the department’s policy areas and levelling up initiatives pre-date even the New Labour government. The 1992 John Major government used things like Single Regeneration Budgets (SRBs) and the European Structural Funds to target what we now call “left behind” areas under the direction of Michael Heseltine.
It is reasonable to trace the immediate genesis of the department itself back to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (John Prescott), formed within the Cabinet Office in 2001 and then made a separate ministry in 2002. Over the following 4 years it absorbed various functions including local government and regional policy (although not transport). ODPM was truly a mega-department, with 4,500 staff (up from only 1,750 at its start) and over £46.6bn flowing through it to local government.
In 2006 the ODPM was essentially abolished and the Department for Communities and Local Government replaced it. The new DCLG was much diminished from ODPM. It lost a quarter of its staff in the immediate changes and then continued to shrink to only 1,650 by 2015 – about a third of the size it was at its ODPM peak. It also lost a large proportion of its local government budget to the Department for Education in 2006 so that it now only provided less than half its previous funding to local government: down to only £22.8bn from £46.6bn.
Theresa May transferred housing into DCLG in 2018 making it the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). The latest incarnation as DLUHC has dropped “local government” entirely from its title, although it retains the responsibility for English local government.
DLUHC may have been a relatively small department in staffing terms over the past two decades. But at its height in 2006 it controlled £56bn of Government expenditure (19% of the total spent on services) and a wide range of functions. It has also been hampered by constant changes to its size and scope.
DHLUC AND THE BIGGER PICTURE
There are question marks over how this new department will fit into the wider Whitehall picture – and the UK as a whole.
When the department was set up, it was widely reported that Michael Gove – the secretary of state for levelling up – had been given a key role in delivering one of the government’s top priorities by coordinating its implementation across government, as well as running his already expanded department.
However, at the time there was no cabinet committee or sub-committee on “levelling up” Britain of the 20 such committees. The only cabinet committee that Mr Gove chaired is the “Union Policy Implementation” committee – which as the name suggests focuses on relationships between Westminster and the devolved nations.
In the Levelling Up white paper, which finally appeared in February 2022, there was a reference to the “UK Government’s Cabinet Committee on Levelling Up” (although it still did not appear on the Cabinet Office website). We asked both the Cabinet Office and DLUHC. The latter confirmed it exists but neither would divulge any information about when it was set up, when it has met, who is on it and what its terms of reference are.
DEVOLVED AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS
A bigger question is how DLUHC will fit into the wider UK. The white paper says that “UK Government will work closely with the devolved administrations, who hold the levers to drive change in devolved areas like health and education, and local partners to find the best way to alleviate spatial disparities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
It also sets out a whole range of measures to “engage” devolved and local governments across the whole UK to produce “co-designed and co-delivered” programmes of change.
But the white paper also makes it quite clear UK government will be engaging directly with local governments in the devolved territories, which is almost certain to irritate the devolved administrations.
The Scottish government’s Constitution Secretary, Angus Robertson MSP, told us that “as with the Brexit Freedoms Bill, it was regrettable that devolved governments did not receive any specific information about the content and timing of the Levelling Up White Paper, and despite the clear interest of devolved governments there was little meaningful engagement before it was published.”
He went on to tell us that: “This approach is of course completely at odds with the principles set out in the recently published Intergovernmental Relations review - of mutual respect for the responsibilities of governments, and for building and maintaining trust based on effective communication.”
Asked about engagement in the White Paper, Mick Antoniw, Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution in the Welsh government, told us: “When we responded to the Intergovernmental Relations Review, we said the test would be whether the UK Government followed the spirit of the review, based on respect and a new approach that serves all governments equally and fairly.
“The early signs have not been good. We continue to receive extremely limited information on very significant initiatives, when engagement with devolved governments would be essential in bringing forward meaningful reform.
“Westminster seems content to drive a coach and horses through the concept of mutual consent, on which the devolution settlement was designed to operate.”
DLUHC said it rejects these claims “entirely”, with a spokesperson adding: “Our Levelling up White Paper is a blueprint for reversing this country’s striking geographical inequalities and radically transforming the United Kingdom – it can only work as a shared national project.
“We engaged extensively with the leaders of local and devolved governments before the White Paper’s publication and continue to do so.”
They went on: “Ministers and officials are visiting all parts of the UK to hear from a range of voices from local government, the public sector and community groups, and we will continue to work hand in hand with governments across the UK to spread opportunity.”
English local government sources say that their involvement was more positive and they did have some effect. But they added this was due to the level of detail about devolution within England in the White Paper which needed local government engagement and knowledge.
There is therefore, clear reason for concern that the organisation and management of the levelling up agenda, either within the Westminster government or between it and the devolved and local governments of the UK, does not look fit for purpose.