What’s levelling up part 2: the excitement continues.
The first part of this post attempted to identify some coherence and structure in levelling up. Based on readings of political documents, speeches and statements, alongside ongoing work looking at the evolving governance of England, it pulls out several emergent themes. First there is a possible shift in geographical focus to smaller places and an emphasis on community identity rather than the ‘cities’ rhetoric of recent years, together with ambitions to boost manufacturing through active industrial policy. There are the familiar themes of infrastructure investment, regional dispersal of civil service jobs, and special economic zones (SEZ) in the form of free ports and perhaps a broader relaxation of planning regulations. In addition, political devolution remains prominent in policy discussions and there is also significant interest in the decentralisation of public funding for research and development.
So are we much the wiser?
Not really. There’s a sense of disorganisation around levelling up and, strikingly, I couldn’t really identify education and skills as a levelling up theme. While encouraging a simmering culture war, the government recently released an interim conclusion on the Auger review of post-18 education which continues the ongoing mutterings about low quality courses and defunding universities in favour of further education but, amid this, a sense of place remains largely absent as it has been from most discussion of education and skills alongside levelling up. “Low value” courses as measured by graduate salaries will be disproportionally at post-92 institutions in poorer areas and it is difficult to square the possibility of defunding these institutions with a policy of investing in peripheral places. Away from higher-ed (where I have an obvious vested interest), improving engagement and outcomes in education remains vital for poorer places, but expansion and improvement will require increased revenue funding, something that was highlighted in a well-received but subsequently largely ignored Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy.
Aside from this, it is striking and disappointing that levelling up contains so many familiar tropes; special economic zones, moving civil service jobs out of London and infrastructure investment. On the latter, it is notable that government is keener to talk about capital investment rather than day-to-day spending but, emerging from the initial Covid-19 crisis, the UK is likely to face an amplification of longstanding socio-economic problems beyond the reach of discrete economic development policy and a first step in levelling up would be to reinvest in public services and rebuild the social security system. Crucially, this would mean serious public investment and, while everyone is in favour of fair and progressive taxation, probably willingness from most if not all citizens to pay more tax.
However, there is fundamentally a sense of confusion and even tension around the levelling up agenda. Ahead of the November 2020 spending review, there were briefings that government would provide more detail on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, but there was limited information. In addition, there is concern that discussions around a wider geographical spread of public R&D funding might have been driven by Dominic Cummings. Instead, the November spending review produced a rabbit out of the hat with a new “Levelling Up Fund” that on closer inspection resembled the controversial Towns Fund, (the subject of serious criticism by the National Audit Office), had an air of policymaking on the hoof, and raised a heap of questions. Perhaps most importantly, how will the various funds such as the UKSPF, the levelling up fund and the towns fund interact (as I type there are suggestions that they refer to the same pot of money), what is the overall strategy and how will we know if levelling up has succeeded? Furthermore, what is the economic rationale for a shift in policy away from urban centres and a focus on “towns” (with the case appearing to rest largely on calls to fair shares and assumptions that all places have equal economic potential). Questions like this inevitably follow confused and confusing policy announcements, and encourage a feeling that government either doesn’t know or can’t agree not just how to achieve levelling up, but what levelling up is, what success would look like, or even if it is possible. Historically, the view that nothing works has been widespread among Whitehall policymakers and presents the risk, at least partly implicit in the tone and spread of things like the towns and levelling up funds, that levelling up becomes largely about eye-catching initiatives, community identity and sending a message to voters (“your town matters”) more than a serious strategy to reduced spatial inequality.