Is the levelling up white paper fit for purpose?

Weighing in at more than 300 pages, the government’s flagship policy document is not short of words. But is it short on substance?
Levelling up secretary Michael Gove. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By Tevye Markson

02 Mar 2022

The government published its levelling up white paper for England last month, more than two years after announcing the flagship policy in its 2019 election manifesto.

The white paper set out 12 missions to reduce the gap between the richer and poorer parts of the UK by 2030. They cover pay and productivity, public transport improvements, and offer devolution deals to every part of England.

Michael Gove, secretary of state at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, said: “For too many decades, too many communities have been overlooked and undervalued.” He said the levelling-up agenda was about ending “historic injustice” and “calling time on the postcode lottery”.

But reaction has been mixed, with praise for the document’s ambition and criticism for the lack of funding, originality and focus.

The Institute for Government think tank said the white paper was a “genuine attempt” by government to turn a slogan into a plan of action that could be measured and judged. It said further devolution of powers “could be genuinely radical” but warned government risked “falling well short of its targets” due to the absence of a “clear sense of priorities about which issues are most important, and where intervention can be most effective”.

The IfG also questioned the lack of new major policies and additional funding – just £11bn over the next five years – to achieve the priorities set out. 

Another think tank, the Centre for Cities, noted that Germany spent 2 trillion euros between 1990 and 2014 on levelling up measures following reunification. 

Policy director Paul Swinney said the lack of long-term funding for the measures outlined in the white paper was troubling. “The huge concern is that this signals that Treasury is not behind the agenda. And history tells us that is the death knell to any policy plans,” he said.

Former No.10 chief of staff Lord Gavin Barwell agreed the funding announced so far was insufficient, but said the white paper was a “big step in the right direction”, building on former PM Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy and ex-chancellor George Osborne’s plans for powerful elected mayors across England.

Others criticised the similarities between the goals and plans announced by previous governments, including May’s Industrial Strategy. 

Darren Jones, who chairs parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, said the white paper was “essentially the recently-scrapped Industrial Strategy rebranded as levelling up”.

The industrial strategy was shelved in March last year, but elements were absorbed into the government’s Plan for Growth. “Government was failing at delivering the Industrial Strategy missions so how will government now deliver this?” Jones asked.

“The huge concern is that the Treasury is not behind the agenda. History tells us that is the death knell to any policy plans”

Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy described the white paper as full of “recycled, watered-down ambitions”, adding that one of the better announcements in the publication was made by Gordon Brown in 2008.

But the IfG said it was good that the government was not pretending to be the first to have identified or tried to tackle problems at the heart of the agenda. “Instead, it sets out why – in its view – previous attempts failed and why the contents of its new white paper mean this time will be different,” the think tank said.

Colin Talbot, professor emeritus of government at the University of Manchester, said some levelling up initiatives pre-dated even the New Labour government. 

He told CSW: “The 1992 John Major government used things like Single Regeneration Budgets and European Structural Funds to target what we now call ‘left behind’ areas under the direction of Michael Heseltine.”

The chief area of concern for Talbot, however, is that the organisation and management of the levelling up agenda “does not look fit for purpose”, with “constant changes” to the scope and size of DLUHC; secrecy over the new cabinet committee for levelling up; and a lack of engagement with devolved administrations.

This last issue has caused plenty of frustration in Scotland and Wales.

The white paper makes it clear that, as well as working with the devolved administrations, the UK government will be engaging directly with local government across the UK. Talbot says this is “almost certain to irritate the devolved administrations” – and so it has.

Angus Robertson, the Scottish Government’s constitution secretary, told CSW: “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.

“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.”

Also speaking to CSW, Mick Antoniw, counsel general and minister for the constitution in the Welsh Government, said: “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.”

While English local government sources say their involvement has been more positive, they said this was due to the amount of detail about devolution within England in the white paper that needed local government engagement and knowledge. 

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