Levelling up needs to burst the Westminster bubble
The government’s levelling up agenda took a significant step forward yesterday. After much fanfare and build up, the white paper was published and finally clarified the policy agenda behind the government’s rhetoric.
The plans set out in this key policy document are far reaching and will require a collective effort in Westminster, including from Whitehall departments, if they are to be achieved. So, what should happen now?
The government has set out an ambitious list of missions, focussed on a range of outcomes, from health to housing. To deliver them will require an acknowledgement that at its core, levelling up is a policy agenda born out of a desire to tackle divides between and within regions because it is only right that people everywhere have the chance to lead the good life.
With this in mind, the agenda cannot be achieved unless we give those places currently at the sharp end of our deep regional divides the powers and resources they need to tackle them.
Levelling up will be contingent on the willingness of the Treasury to let go of real powers
The establishment of a new devolution framework outlined in the white paper is significant and, given IPPR North’s longstanding ask for this, a welcome move. If delivered with radical ambition, it has the potential to shift power away from Whitehall and towards town halls.
But devolution has always been a process, not an event. The promised broadening and deepening of devolution must be matched with a real shift in power to people and places. Currently, 96p in every £1 of tax revenue is collected and spent by Whitehall. It is imperative that, as the levelling up agenda moves forward, both new and existing mayors are given greater fiscal powers, currently missing from the white paper, if we are to shift the dial on where power lies and ensure people feel levelled up.
Another crucial obstacle that will need to be overcome is the current lack of new funding.
In fact, IPPR North’s recent research has shown that the current funding on offer is wholly inadequate. The levelling up fund equates to just £32 per person in the North. By comparison, council service spending fell by £413 per person between 2009/10 and 2019/20. To succeed, the damage done by a decade of austerity must first be reversed, with a new and significant long-term funding settlement for local government.
In the short term, levelling up will only be successful if the Treasury puts its full weight behind the agenda and commits to increased investment in rejuvenating our regions.
In the long run, levelling up will be contingent on the willingness of the Treasury to let go of real powers, so that local places can take control of key fiscal decisions for themselves. This is the model for success that helped Germany close its significant regional divides in the 1990s.
Gove has set out an ambitious vision to level up the country. But if he is to succeed in his mission, this ambitious agenda must now be matched with a radical reimaging of where power truly lies in this country.
A commitment to shift power from Westminster to Wolverhampton will only become a reality by empowering local places and their leaders. This is the objective in sight for the government, but it will only be achieved by working with parliamentarians to identify the resources and powers needed to oversee a devolution revolution.
Empowering the communities they serve is a principle that should inspire those in Parliament to seek to build a democracy in this country that works for people.
Jonathan Webb is a senior research fellow at IPPR North.
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