Levelling up needs a new approach, IfG tells Sunak and Starmer

Think tank says central government is “not set up to deliver” current agenda or Labour’s plans for reducing regional inequality

By Jim Dunton

15 Sep 2023

Prime minister Rishi Sunak and his would-be successor in No.10 Sir Keir Starmer have been warned that delivering the government’s levelling up agenda – or a future Labour Party version – will require a change of approach at the centre.

A new paper on reducing regional inequalities produced by the Institute for Government says past mistakes are being repeated in the current bid to rebalance prosperity across the UK and accuses Sunak of failing to prioritise the agenda “ruthlessly” enough.

The report, written by Rebecca McKee, Thomas Pope and Maelyne Coggins, says that last year’s Levelling Up the United Kingdom white paper correctly identified many of the systemic issues behind the UK’s failure to deal with regional inequality.

However, it also points out that some of the white paper’s proposals – and in particular the creation of a levelling up cabinet committee chaired by levelling up secretary Michael Gove and including HM Treasury representation – have either been downgraded or are yet to materialise.

It also draws a correlation between Sunak’s ascension to No.10 in October last year and a “stalling” of the levelling up agenda.

The paper notes that cross-department coordination has “historically been poor” in the UK, with ministers and their departments “focused on their own priorities, with insufficient incentives to collaborate with others”.

It says the problem is not limited to levelling up and also affects cross-cutting policies like net zero. However the report notes: “The sheer number of departments involved in an agenda as broad as levelling up means poor co-ordination across central government can be fatal.”

McKee, Pope and Coggins set six “tests” to determine whether “lofty rhetoric” from ministers is being translated into on-the-ground action.

They include a “ruthless prioritisation” for the agenda on the part of the prime minister; effective structures for cross-Whitehall working; effective partnerships with local and devolved government; and plans to build up and use a “strong evidence base”.

McKee, who is a senior researcher at the IfG, said “ruthless prioritisation” for the levelling up agenda was notably absent in No.10 at present. She added that Starmer and deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner – who is now also shadow levelling up secretary – had work to do to develop their offer, too.

“Successive governments since 1990 have tried to reduce large regional inequalities in the UK, but gaps remain as large as ever. Political rhetoric is not enough,” McKee said.

“Any government serious about delivering long-term change will need to meet the six tests we lay out. Most importantly, the prime minister prioritising the agenda within government and setting out clear and measurable objectives for what constitutes  success.

“Levelling up has faltered without the first, while Labour must flesh out what it is trying to achieve with its ‘opportunity for all’ mission in particular over the next year.”

The report says some recommendations – such as improving communication channels between central and devolved governments, designing a properly resourced plan to boost evaluation and improving the quality of subnational data – would lead to better policymaking regardless of work to reduce regional inequalities.

But it concludes that addressing regional inequalities will need to be “one of the top one or two domestic priorities” for any government if serious headway is to be made.

“The levelling up agenda has made some promising steps, and despite being undermined by inconsistent political attention it has still ensured regional inequalities will be high up the agenda at the next election and over the next few years,” the report says.

'Levelling up' from the centre: Six tests for a government serious about reducing regional inequalities can be read in full here.

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