Levelling up

One Saturday just before the pandemic we went over to Worksop to visit ‘Mr Straw’s House’. Now in the care of the National Trust, it’s an ordinary enough terraced house which, after Mr Straw died in 1932, was barely changed at all by his family. It is a time capsule of early twentieth century domestic life. On the walls in the information room are monochrome photographs of early twentieth century Worksop – a busy market, a lively high street and myriad local employers. It wasn’t a prosperous town, but it was buoyant.  It was a set of images from a time which was, to coin a phrase, more ‘levelled up’. From the perspective of 2022, it poses the challenge for a government committed to levelling up: can that thriving past be recovered for ‘left behind’ places?

Published last week, the Levelling Up White Paper has been a long time coming, and there is a lot riding on it.  In the years before the Brexit referendum, it was already clear that regional inequalities in the United Kingdom were deeper than in any other European country: London and the south-east is one of the most prosperous regions in Europe, whilst South Yorkshire, the Northeast and Cornwall are amongst the poorest. Given how far the geographies of the Brexit vote, and Conservative 2019 election victory were driven by these inequalities, it’s not surprising that the Prime Minister should introduce the White Paper by asserting that “the defining mission of this government [is] … to level up this country”.

It’s a long document, stretching to three hundred pages, with a cerebral introduction surveying the history of geographical inequalities, including a list of the largest cities in the world since 7000 BC, which if nothing else might come in handy for pub quizzes. This has attracted some derision since putting the White Paper through Turnitin suggested that chunks of the historical background were culled from the pages of Wikipedia. At least one Cabinet Minister has criticised the introduction as an embarrassment. But the derision is unfair. Set aside the more eccentric references to the ancient and Renaissance worlds, and the analysis of the UK’s geographic, social and economic inequalities is blunt, realistic and devastating. It concludes that “geographic differences in the UK are large in absolute terms and have widened over recent decades” and that “the UK’s spatial disparities are also among the largest across advanced economies”. It maps them in terms of income inequality, productivity, life expectancy, educational attainment, and through the weaknesses in transport, digital connectivity and housing infrastructure which underpin them. It marshals impressive academic research to underpin the analysis, including (footnote 108) work by Sheffield Hallam’s Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill showing that the” UK experienced greater deindustrialisation, at a faster pace, than any other country in the G7”. It bears the influence of Andy Haldane, formerly the deputy governor of the Bank of England, who is one of the sharpest thinkers about economic and social disparities and the place of innovation in responding to them. It sets ambitious goals for levelling up over a decade – an age in politics – and draws on an elegant conceptual model based on “six capitals” – sources of resilience and resource which drive prosperity: physical, intangible, human, financial, social and institutional. “The engine of regional growth”, it asserts “is a six-cylinder one [and] these six capitals cross-cut the public, private and civil society sectors”.

I’m not alone in seeing a gap between the cogency of the analysis and the policy prescriptions in the White Paper. Some commentary has observed that some of the policy ideas look like the result of a trawl through Whitehall departments for things that were already being thought about. This is difficult stuff for government, which is as, if not more, siloed than many other organisations; it really is difficult to drive cross-cutting change through the structures of government. That difficulty is exacerbated by the appearance of the Levelling Up White Paper after spending decisions had been set in last Autumn’s three-year spending review.  Even so there are some curious dissonances in the paper. In an article for the Conservative Home website, Rachel Wolf, another exceptionally sharp thinker who shaped the 2019 Conservative manifesto, has pointed to the gap between the high ambition of a goal that by 2030, 90% of 11-year olds should reach expected levels of literacy and numeracy, and the feeble caution of the adult skills target, which translates into an 0.3% per annum increase in adult higher skills, and which by 2030 would still leave provision below the 2010 level. In neither primary education nor adult skills is there evidence of deep thinking about actually how to shift performance.

The White Paper recognises that changes cannot be driven from Whitehall: innovation, energy and engagement need to be driven locally and regionally, which means that civil society organisations are critical in shaping places. I was delighted to see the reference (p197) to Sheffield Hallam’s role in shaping our city, but beyond that the White Paper is underpowered on universities’ potential. As we unpack our own analysis of the White Paper and look at the enormous challenges of the decade ahead, the first obvious lesson is that we need to build better understanding of our place-making role and of our ability to drive innovation and prosperity. The gap between where much of our society is now, and those faded pictures of thriving market towns from the past are reminders of the vast gap we have to close.

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