Paul Howell: The next prime minister must find a way to deliver levelling up
Levelling up is a fundamental part of the offer of the Conservative government elected in 2019. It could not have had bigger obstacles put in its way.
The bandwidth of the government was consumed by a global pandemic and now it is severely impacted by the war in Ukraine and the resultant dramatic impacts on cost of living. But whilst it has clearly been a tough two and a half years, the government has to find a way to deliver.
It is critical that whoever leads the country after the Conservative leadership election gives attention to this most important of issues. The challenge, of course, is that levelling up means different things to different people.
I start with the perspective of a northern MP who chairs the APPG for Left Behind Neighbourhoods and as such I resonate with the desire to level up the North. I do, through my work with the APPG, have a clear vision that this is not just a North/South issue, it is much more nuanced than that. These neighbourhoods are scattered throughout the United Kingdom. They go from the north east to the south coast and from Kent to Cumbria.
Institutions need to work out how to enable communities to do what needs to be done
We are currently working through an inquiry on the way the levelling up agenda needs to deliver for left behind neighbourhoods and we are taking evidence from many parties. Our third session takes place in September where we will address pride in place, housing and crime. The witnesses to our session are drawn from the following: institutions working at the front line; community leaders or activists; academics and ministers.
These sessions provide a significant degree of visibility on the complexity of this agenda – but also on its simplicity. There are clear strands in what we have seen so far in that: different communities need different things, cohesion is critical, levelling up needs to be felt at local levels, it needs to be tangible and something communities recognise.
When it comes to the challenges for government in delivery then these simple points explode their complexity.
The identification of what specifically can make a difference at a community level is so different that it is close to impossible for this to be a top-down approach. In our APPG sessions we started with a position that we needed to encourage institutions to work with communities and not do to them. This has now evolved slightly to: institutions need to work out how to enable communities to do what needs to be done.
It therefore becomes a challenge to government as to how they release control of the details of actions whilst still being comfortable that public funds are being applied wisely. We see as well how important it is that initiatives align. The easiest example of cohesion would be seeing the integration of investment in a new rail line or service with local bus and cycling offers. I want to see passenger rail services start again at Ferryhill in my constituency, the rationale starts with the locals wanting it for many years. This sort of investment shows communities that government is interested in them and their opportunities – but it is critical, in this example, to link bus services etc to maximise the benefit.
We have seen how organisations, like Big Local, have been invested in an area and given locals the power to determine where and what form the investment takes. It appears to me that the best opportunity to address the real local issues and let people touch and feel that their area is improving is to follow this model and move away from a contractual engagement with communities, what Danny Kruger has described as driven by covenant. By this, it becomes an agreement of what needs to be done but not how it needs to be done, with the specifics addressed based on need.
Lastly, of course, there is difficulty crossing political boundaries. We have seen examples of when different tiers of government have different political colours it can prove particularly frustrating to deliver fantastic initiatives.
I do hope that should central government deliver the tools then all the pillars of local government employed in delivery can crack on and deliver without making political points.
Paul Howell is the Conservative MP for Sedgefield.
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