Gove urged to clarify ‘confused’ levelling-up rhetoric

Institute for Government warns flagship drive cannot be all things to all people and places
Photo: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy Live News

By Jim Dunton

24 Sep 2021

New “levelling up” secretary Michael Gove must use the looming white paper on the flagship initiative to clear up “contradictory rhetoric” that is confusing the government’s ambitions, the Institute for Government has warned.

The independent think tank says that while last week’s reshuffle – which put Gove at the helm of the agenda and prompted the latest rebranding for the now-former Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – showed commitment to levelling up, more clarity was required.

The IfG said an analysis of ministerial statements on levelling up, and the distribution of funding flagged as part of the agenda, raised questions that were in urgent need of answers. They include whether the initiative is targeted at people or places; whether  it is about decentralising funding or targeting support from Whitehall; and what role the nation’s biggest cities have in ministers’ plans.

The IfG’s latest report notes that the formula for the government’s Levelling Up Fund used a measure of economic output rather than income deprivation to target support. This means rural areas with high numbers of pensioners or commuters, such as Richmondshire in North Yorkshire, were relatively highly ranked, while urban areas like Hounslow in west London – which have high economic output but also high levels of income deprivation – were not prioritised.

The IfG said to date, ministers appear to have been using levelling up “interchangeably” to refer to helping the most deprived people and the most deprived places when the two aims could require different policy solutions. Citing an example related to Yorkshire, the think tank said different sets of policies will be required if the main objective of levelling up Wakefield and Barnsley is to provide new jobs in each local area, as opposed to giving local  people access to better job opportunities. It said that the latter example might involve helping more local people travel to bigger nearby cities for work.

“The white paper needs to clarify whether the government is deliberately choosing to place more emphasis on productivity, and if so, what the trade-offs will be in terms of helping the most deprived areas,” the IfG said.

The think tank also questioned the role of devolved administrations in the levelling-up agenda, and suggested that ministers might be overplaying the significance of plans to move 22,000 civil service jobs out of London by 2030 as part of the programme.

It said that the staffing shift will “not necessarily lead to greater decentralisation of policymaking if ministers and the majority of senior policymakers remained in London, which the report said was “likely to be the case” unless more radical proposals for change is tabled.

IfG researcher and report co-author Eleanor Shearer said that almost two years after the prime minister made his general election manifesto commitment to level up left behind parts of the nation, it is now time for the government to properly set out its plans.

“Michael Gove’s priority in his new role should be to provide greater clarity on what levelling up means, and how its success will be judged,” she said.

“Without this, it will be impossible to know if the government is making progress on this ambitious agenda. There is a danger that money, time and effort will simply be spread too thinly across disparate objectives.

"The white paper in the autumn needs to address the tensions that currently exist in what the government has said about levelling up and will also be a chance for the government to explain how devolution and decentralising power fits into the levelling up agenda.”

Talk of the Towns Fund 

The IfG has also published a separate mini-report on the distribution of the controversial Towns Fund, criticised by members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee over claims of political bias in allocations.

The fund launched in 2019 and offered eligible towns the chance to bid for a share of a £3.6bn pot to drive economic regeneration and boost local infrastructure. Initially, individual allocations were subject to a cap of £25m unless exceptional circumstances could be demonstrated.

MHCLG officials created a methodology to identify around 500 eligible towns and divided them into “low”, “medium” and “high” priority bands reflecting their individual circumstances. All 40 towns on the “high” priority list were accepted for the fund, but MHCLG ministers had a role in selecting successful bids for funding from the “medium” and “low” priority groups.

The IfG explainer noted that all 12 of the “low” priority towns were represented by Conservative MPs. A further 49 towns from the “medium” priorority list were selected, adding up to 101 sucessful bids for a place on the Towns Fund programme.

The National Infrastructure Commission yesterday said the government should abandon the 15-plus funding streams that currently support the levelling-up agenda and replace them with a streamlined approach.

It also questioned the logic of distributing funding to drive key government reforms on a competitive basis and called instead for more devolved funding for local authority areas to allow them to plan for and deliver their own infrastructure programmes.

Infrastructure commissioner Bridget Rosewell said every English town faced a different set of challenges and opportunities and that local leaders were best placed to develop strategies to address them.

“Levelling up cannot be done from Whitehall,” she said. “Competing against other councils for multiple pots of cash creates a focus on the short term, continual uncertainty, and burns up staff time. Local councils need to be empowered to deliver transformational plans for the future and held accountable for doing so.”

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