It’s been a few weeks since UKREiiF, the UK largest forum around real estate investment and infrastructure, where I had the pleasure to chair a RLB panel discussion around ‘Is Levelling Up Working?’.
With a mixed panel of both private and public sector stakeholders and those sitting in local government positions as well as within central government, it was fascinating to hear the varying opinions of the speakers, the sharing of their successes and the challenges they felt were ahead to really achieve levelling up.
Levelling up was first articulated as a political policy back in 2019 in the Conservative Party manifesto with the intention to reduce the imbalances, primarily economic, between areas and social groups across the UK. A year on from the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper in February 2022, I asked the panel whether levelling up was working, what needed to improve and what measures were required for the next 18 months. Here is a summary of my key take outs from the discussions on the day:
It might take a generation to see change
There was an acknowledgement that it was still early days when it came to delivery of the levelling up agenda and the understanding of whether the policies and action to date were really working. Panel members agreed that levelling up was a long-term challenge and that change is not going to transpire overnight, yet the direction of travel was right, although many felt it wasn’t happening fast enough.
Levelling up is complicated
While of course, economic equality and opportunity was seen as key, there was sentiment that levelling up needed a holistic approach including:
- How communities want to live – what housing, what public realm do they want and how do we enable this to happen?
- How communities want to work – what skill levels do we need to develop and encourage to meet the demand of that we know is coming up in the horizon? How do we increase productivity and invest in innovation and R&D in those areas?
- How do people move and travel – connectivity and digital connectivity of our communities, not just inside cities but outside of them too.
- How do people connect emotionally – how do we support communities to be cohesive through open green spaces, and the power of art and culture and the like?
Levelling up isn’t a political turn
Levelling up was seen as enduring and apolitical; that it wasn’t about politics but outcomes. Despite a possible General Election next year and regardless of who might get into power, the same challenges will be present, and government would need a remit and desire to deliver for the public, whatever colour it was.
Long term strategies were needed, and economic cases needed to be stated to agree these. Central government has its role to play in seeding deals, bringing stability to the strategy; though the general agreement is that decision making should be made locally, with local leaders best placed to broker deals that can affect positive change for their local communities in the longer term.
It isn’t about ‘you win, we lose’
There was the appreciation that both local and central government were starting from the same place – what do we want to deliver for our places? How can we have a shared endeavour to work more collaboratively?
There was a consensus that long term change cannot be created in a competitive environment and that there was too much pitting of cities and regions against each other rather than reviewing investment holistically across the UK; for instance, how a potential investment in London might also benefit Leeds or Manchester.
There was acknowledgement that collective thinking was happening though. For example, with the 32 London Boroughs and cities outside of London involved in 3CI , a partnership between Connected Places Catapult, Core Cities UK, London Councils and other local authorities across the UK aimed at supporting local authorities secure the necessary long-term finance for achieving net zero. There needs to be trust and maturity for Central Government to handover powers for local government to deliver.
We need to lock in the private sector
It was clear that levelling up will not happen without the private sector. A real conversation about funding and investment, where this will come from and a long-term commitment from central government to give stability to private investors, is crucial for success. However, there were some great examples already where joint ventures were working successfully including with Homes England and York Central and the regeneration of Kings Cross with Argent.
As we wrapped up our session, I asked the audience for one thing that should be improved or implemented in the next 18 months to have a real impact on levelling up? The answer that stood out was illuminating – Transparency. There are many different ways we can potentially interpret this; transparency of how Levelling Up funds are allocated, how the schemes will be delivered or how they contribute to an overall, meaningful levelling up strategy. A great thread for further discussions.
What was clear in my mind at the end of the session though was that although we have made progress, we are still at the beginning of our journey and that we need to work collaboratively long-term to develop strategy to achieve our outcomes, to ensure that our words become actions and that we deliver commitments and outcomes that reflect our communities. And most importantly, that we need to listen to the voices in our communities as ultimately, they are what levelling up is really all about.