Levelling Up White Paper – Levelling Up or Levelling Off?

09 Feb 22

The flagship element of what is badged as a cross-cutting central Government agenda for the 2020s is 12 missions, taking a leaf out of NASA’s book.


So finally the Levelling Up White Paper landed and we’ve read the detail. It’s a comprehensive tome running to 300 pages which analyses in some depth – and maps – the inequalities which exist between, and within, UK regions and nations. It identifies the perennial problems –an everchanging policy landscape and organisational structures, initiatives which are short-term and lack scale and overall insufficient resources. But it’s questionable if it addresses them.

The flagship element of what is badged as a cross-cutting central Government agenda for the 2020s is 12 missions, taking a leaf out of NASA’s book. These read like the chapters of a national regeneration strategy winding back to the bygone days of New Labour’s New Deal for Communities. They seek to address disparities in economic performance, public transport and digital infrastructure, school performance, skills, health, well-being, community pride and crime.

Some laudable ambitions, but will it deliver? Here money talks. Modest funding commitments risk fall well short of the scale of the challenge following austerity and the impacts of the pandemic. For instance just 20 places, starting with Wolverhampton and Sheffield, will see funding for transformational regeneration. A £1.5 Bln Levelling Up Home Building Fund is introduced. But there’s no new funding for social housing.

Drill deeper and we find that a range of existing funding programmes will be refocused on delivering levelling up objectives. Homes England is refocused back towards a role as a national regeneration agency (read English Partnerships). Then there will be Devo Deals through which Government will negotiate funding and freedoms to deliver sub-regional / county priorities. These potentially could have the greatest ‘levelling’ impact by enabling local representatives to prioritise spending through a simplified funding settlement. The effect of ‘bending’ mainstream public funding in a range of areas towards areas of deprivation could be significant. But in doing so there will be winners and losers.

The tension is in the balance between investing in areas of need vs. opportunity. The White Paper R&D mission aims to increase public R&D investment outside the Greater South East by at least 40% by 2030, with 3 innovation accelerators identified as a focus – Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow City Region. Where this leaves investment in the Ox-Cam Arc – an area with existing strengths in the science and technology-based activities which are at the heart of Government’s economic ambitions – is unclear. It’s simply not mentioned.

For planning and development more specifically, there is surprisingly little detail on reforms to the planning system although there are signals that local plans “will be made simpler and shorter” with “further greening the greenbelt” and “a more positive approach to employment land in national policy”. Is reform now slipping down Government’s agenda? A focus on affordability as a means of directing investment appears to be shifting; and despite the White Paper’s length we find little about what role planning – and any renaissance of strategic planning – might play as part of devolution. The opportunity here requires legislative changes to make it a reality. So lots of questions remain, not least how this agenda may evolve, particularly if there’s change in leadership at the top.

Nick Ireland Director,Planning,Economics