How can civil servants and their departments make levelling up a success?

As government’s levelling up work progresses, Tevye Markson speaks to experts, including local politicians, to find out what can be done to help economies across the country take flight
Inspiration from the past – the Spitfire at Stoke-on-Trent Potteries Museum And Art Gallery. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

31 Aug 2022

Levelling up was the flagship policy of Boris Johnson’s government and is likely to continue to be key, whoever the next prime minister is. Johnson said levelling up would “break the link between geography and destiny so that no matter where you live, you have access to the same opportunities”. 

Although the levelling up white paper, unveiled in February, includes plans to improve education, infrastructure and “pride in place”, a central plank of the agenda is driving growth across the country.  

Economic growth, which is driven largely by high employment and productivity, is over-concentrated in specific areas, particularly the south-east of England, where there is more R&D investment and there are greater employment opportunities. 

But how likely is it that the latest economic growth plan will succeed where others have failed and what can officials do to maximise the chances of genuine progress? 

A key challenge when looking at regional plans is that the civil service is not well set up to deal with spatial policies, “perhaps in part because, historically, spatial analysis might not have been a big part of policy development”, says Thomas Pope, the Institute for Government’s deputy chief economist. 

To put spatial considerations at the centre of the government’s decision making, a new Levelling Up Cabinet Committee was established last year, tasked with embedding levelling up across central government policy design and delivery. The committee will also work directly with local leaders to improve the clarity, consistency and coordination of policy. 

Another area where there is room for improvement is the government’s evidence base for growth policy. The National Audit Office said in a report in February that the government lacks evidence on whether the billions of pounds of public funding it has awarded to local bodies in the past 10 years for supporting local growth has had the impact intended. 

The white paper sets out plans to reform the government’s approach to data and evaluation to make it easier to see what impact local spending has. Pope says the government is saying the right things but he would like to see firmer plans developed.  

“One thing that our work has exposed is that, even though there are clear lessons that you can learn from past policies that different governments have implemented, the evidence is not as good as it should be, because governments haven’t spent enough time evaluating it.  

“If we’re going to have more devolved policy, and therefore, different policy experiments in different parts of the country, it’s critical that we understand better what is actually working, and what is actually driving change.”  

This would mean having clear evaluation plans from the start as new projects are developed and making greater use of external researchers to evaluate policy and making data more available, he says. 

The structure of the civil service – with departments organised around discrete policy areas – presents another challenge. The levelling up white paper includes 12 missions, ranging from education and transport to health and digital connectivity. While some missions have cross-departmental aims, most sit within one department and the white paper identifies siloed policymaking in central government as one of the key issues that has hampered previous attempts to drive regional growth. 

Pope agrees that joining up the 12 missions will be crucial to levelling up. 

“If you take, say, skills policy, there’s good evidence that if you improve people’s skills, they will earn more and be more productive,” he says. 

“But just improving people’s skills is not necessarily the answer to levelling up, because people who are skilled in places that don’t have the jobs will then move to places that have jobs.” 

He adds: “Departments need to think about how their policies interact with other departments’ policies and ensure there’s as much joined up working on those things as possible. 

 “They need to understand that driving levelling up is about a set of policies working together rather than the one contribution of their specific policy.” 

The levelling up cabinet committee is a “textbook answer as to how you drive better cross departmental working”, he says, adding that: “What you really need is political will and weight behind an agenda like levelling up to create better incentives for departments to work together.” 

Pope says the white paper has a vision for “quite a radical change to the way that Whitehall is set up, the way it works and the way that it interacts with local government”. This includes putting geographical inequality at the centre of policymaking, improving collaboration between central and local government, and devolving more decision making away from the centre. 

“I think for those changes to be pushed through, it really does require political commitment from ministers to make it work, and not just commitment from the minister for levelling up, but also from the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, and from the prime minister and the chancellor,” he says. 

Better coordination across Whitehall will not be enough, however, to drive change.  

“To coordinate better locally,” Pope says, “there are some policies that it makes sense to devolve as well.” 

A key aspect of the levelling up plan is to devolve more power to local government in England, offering each area access to “London-style” powers, which could include their own mayor, if they want it.  

To monitor use of these new powers, the government will create a new independent body aimed at “improving transparency of local government performance”. 

For many these powers are seen as the key to unlocking the rest of the levelling up agenda. “There are policies where local knowledge is particularly useful, like tailoring policy specifically to a local labour market, or there’s policy where it really makes sense for two levers to be decided jointly and strategically,” Pope says. 

“You want your transport policy and your housing policy to work together in a local area, so those are the types of policies that it makes sense to devolve.  

That’s part of what’s going on with the metro mayor model and attempts at green new deals.” But, he adds: “Even if those deals are agreed, England in particular will still be relatively centralised compared to most other countries.” 

Graeme Atherton, head of the Centre for Levelling Up at the University of West London says the UK is not well prepared to devolve power because of just how centralised its system of government is compared to other countries in western Europe. 

“The government needs to think seriously about how it can devolve power to the local government level,” Atherton says.  

“It’s a major challenge for the government to do that so it needs to really consider the mechanisms in place. Shifting power is often harder than shifting resources. And to what level?” 

The government’s current system of awarding funding to councils in general is also problematic. The government operates a competitive funding model, whereby local authorities have to bid for pots of money and prove that each of their projects is value for money and better value for money than other projects. The white paper sets out plans for a simplified, long-term funding settlement, however. 

The current system is “understandable” but there are two downsides, Pope says. “Ultimately, they [civil servants] are held accountable for the money that is spent, and they want to make sure it is spent well. But local government can then end up spending quite a lot of resources in the bidding process, which may be a bit wasteful.  

“The second is that one of the big benefits of devolving policy is an ability to have levers operating strategically together. That’s much harder to do if you have to bid independently for each of those projects. If you don’t know which of those you’re going to be awarded, it’s much harder to think, strategically.” 

This could be solved by having more flexible funding but with more accountability, Pope says. 

“I think that is part of how central and local government can work better together,” he adds.  

“There probably is some money that will end up being less well spent, as a result. But there may also be money that can be much more effectively spent, taking advantage of local areas’ nuanced understanding of what’s required.” 

That nuance also means devolution is not necessarily the right route to growth for all local authorities. Stoke-on-Trent City Council leader Abi Brown says the city would benefit more from getting on with levelling up rather than spending that time battling over devolution. 

“For some places, I can see it’s really valuable, but it isn’t necessarily for us, and as a place that needs to level up, I’ve got two choices: I can either spend a lot of time to battle over devolution that I may or may not win, or I can actually crack on with levelling up.  

“And I really believe that my efforts are better suited to levelling up for my residents than what is in effect, at times, an administrative battle over devolution. Because I’d have to join with another area to get devolution and that’s going to take a huge amount of my time and my effort, when actually, there’s a number of things that I can do that I don’t really need devolution for.” 

Instead, Brown says moral support from government will be far more important to achieving the city’s goals – Stoke-on-Trent City Council published its own plan for levelling up last year – than devolution. Part of this moral support is simply civil servants visiting more often – something Brown says has happened a lot more in the last six months and “makes quite a big difference”. 

“There’s a particular perception often in the press about the city that isn’t really what it looks like at all. It isn’t really full of broken-down factories or broken windows, which sadly does tend to be the perception sometimes.  

“So having people come here to see the good things, but also some of the real challenges, is really helpful. And I think that goes quite a long way towards helping civil servants to understand how to address the levelling up of agenda.” 

Brown says the next step would be to be able to get relevant departments and arm’s-lengths bodies in the same room “rather than having to tell our story again and again to each department”. 

“I appreciate that’s quite complicated because there’s lots of councils out there, but that would make it so much easier,” she says. 

Even for a council which does not see devolution as the vital to levelling up, new powers could play a big role in achieving levelling up success. Improving transport is one of four pillars in Stoke-on-Trent’s plan and Brown says this is an area where getting devolved powers would benefit the city and areas around it. 

The key for Brown, therefore, will be if the government can be pragmatic in its conversations with local authorities to allow for varying levels of devolution. 

The white paper sets out a plan for the next eight years, accepting that levelling up will take some time. 

“The government’s right to acknowledge that this is a long-term situation,” Atherton says, but he adds that eight years is a minimum: “It’s going to take longer to reverse decades of economic and social challenge. 

For economic growth policies to be successful, stability will be key, he continues: “If you are going to have those targets, then stick with them; allow people who are working in this space to understand what they are and remain with them.” 

Atherton is hopeful that there will be progress but says it will not look the same across the country: “Different communities have different starting points. And what progress means in in, say, Blackpool is different to what progress might mean in Thanet, in Kent, with different sets of challenges.”  

But he says the jury is out on whether that will be long-lasting regeneration and the test will be to check in five years’ time if there has been stability of commitment to the agenda and a significant machinery of government to allow funding to make a difference.  

Even if all of the missions were to be achieved, Atherton says they would still be “only a fraction of what would need to be done to instigate long-term meaningful change in some areas”. 

Pope strikes a cautiously optimistic note but also stresses that the next few years will be key. He believes government is trying to address the reasons why previous initiatives have failed, and there’s “a good chance it will at least make some difference to policy”. 

“I’m not sure there will be huge changes to the economic geography of the UK, but that would be a very difficult thing to achieve,” he adds. 

“A lot hinges on what happens in the next couple of years, and whether there’s enough political momentum to actually push through some of the organisational changes that are proposed.” 

For Brown, levelling up success would mean being able to tell new stories. 

“Last year, we completed our £7m spitfire extension to our Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. The designer of the Spitfire, Reginald Joseph Mitchell, came from the city and his legacy really is not [just] the Spitfire we house within the Spitfire Gallery. It’s the idea that any child from Stoke-on-Trent could go on to change the world as he did, by designing something that changed everybody’s lives.  

“So for me in a way levelling up is that – that we get to the point where I don’t have to tell that story any longer because a child from Stoke-on-Trent can aspire to go to university, to live in nice houses, to have good jobs, to not die younger than everybody else pretty much in the UK – and they can aspire to do it here.” 

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