Arithmetic matters

By Ann McGauran | 18 May 2022

Leading think-tank IPPR North, has a new director, with Zoë Billingham taking the helm just a few weeks ago.

It has been a policy-packed period that has pulled in not only a set of intriguing local election results, but also a Queen’s Speech and a levelling up Bill.

She spoke to The MJ the day after a Queen’s Speech that promised to drive growth to improve living standards and fund sustainable investment in public services. But in the view of many, it had little concrete or new to offer that would deliver on these avowed goals.

The flagship Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill arrived hot on the heels of the speech. The new director said it was clear from this the Government was already preparing for the possibility of ditching – or at least re-writing – some or all of the 12 levelling-up missions at the centrepiece of February’s White Paper.

‘So they can write themselves out of a mission’, she added. ‘Who’s to bet that it will be the healthy life expectancy mission that gets the chop, even though it’s the right ambition?’

The Bill does not include provisions for the new independent body that both IPPR North and former head of the UK civil service Lord Bob Kerslake believe is needed to hold Government to account. Ministers will instead do their own evaluation.

Why does she feel it is so important to have an independent body similar to the Climate Change Committee that annually assesses UK progress in reducing emissions to hold the Government to account on progress with levelling up? ‘Marking your own homework I don’t think passes muster. What we would like to see is proper external scrutiny, because if this really is the Government’s flagship agenda, then it should want to have its feet held to the fire.’

At this stage she said the Government’s approach to levelling up ‘feels quite piecemeal and the missions that so far define the Government’s approach to levelling up range from the undefined to the very ambitious’.

‘On the very ambitious end we have the goals they set themselves for 2035 for healthy life expectancy which on the current trajectory are totally unachievable. And yet, in my mind, healthy life expectancy and life expectancy is really the ultimate indicator of successful levelling up, because it encapsulates so much of what we want to see.’

As well as the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, the Queen’s Speech also set out plans for a Social Housing Regulation Bill and a Renters Reform Bill. Last week, secretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, suggested his Government was no longer committed to building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, which would wreck a key Conservative manifesto pledge. He told the BBC: ‘Arithmetic is important but so is beauty, so is belonging, so is democracy, so is making sure we are building communities.’

Responding, Ms Billingham told The MJ: ‘I would disagree with what he said on housing in the sense that arithmetic does totally matter. The supply of houses is what brings house prices down and ensures people have the quality of standard of living that we would expect in a country as wealthy as ours.’

Turning to the local election results, IPPR analysed the results in the context of new polling commissioned by the think-tank in the context of new polling it commissioned in the places that switched from Labour to the Conservatives in the 2019 General Election.

It found that while at face value there was no obvious pattern to the results, a closer look appeared to show that candidates who connected well with local people performed well. What would she highlight? She told The MJ: ‘While “red wall” is a helpful abbreviation, mainly for those in Westminster to think they understand the North, you’ve got to understand the regional and local identities people have which are far more nuanced than the red wall analogy would make you think.’

The pandemic has elevated the role of local leadership across the North, she believes, ‘especially the metro mayors, who had a real public platform and used it to the great advantage of our northern places. Greater Manchester has only had a metro mayor for five years, and yet the platform and the voice that Andy Burnham has been able to give [the region] is extraordinary.’

Arriving at IPPR North fresh from her role as co-director at the Centre for Progressive Policy, she said she is ‘super-excited’ about taking up the top job in an organisation that she has had her eye on for a while.

As a team, IPPR North spans the entire North. ‘I’m based in Liverpool, we work in Manchester and Newcastle. We have team members in Yorkshire, Halifax and Leeds. We’re really pan-Northern.’

She begins her job at a severely challenging time for the UK and the North. Along with the cost of living crisis that has seen prices rising at their fastest pace for 40 years, and sluggish growth, the Bank of England warned last week that high inflation could not only reach 10% later this year, but the squeeze on households may be bigger and also last longer than expected.

She is now working with a team to prioritise what they focus on together. She said: ‘While levelling up has become a bit trendy and everyone’s now an expert in regional inequality, the IPPR North team are big specialists in regional policy, devolution, local government, local democracy – we have some really core skills.

‘And obviously, being part of the wider IPPR family, we can draw on the expertise of other specialists in education, in skills and welfare, so we can then collaborate on those wider social policy issues, too.’

While Ms Billingham does not believe the levelling up agenda is delivering, she concluded that regional inequality is now firmly planted in the public’s imagination as one of the great areas of unfairness of our time.

‘So I think that’s already very powerful, because it means regardless of who the Government is, the pressure will be on from the public because they’ve now been promised change. So I think that’s one chink of light.’

When it comes to local democracy and devolution, districts are disgruntled that the legislation in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill would prevent them from being constituent members of new style combined county authorities. But Ms Billingham is still optimistic about the overall direction of devolution. She said: ‘Looking at local leadership and the emergence of new mayors and how existing mayors are using their powers differently, that’s another chink of light because local leaders I know feel like they can get on with things anyway in some areas of government.’

Part of the work IPPR North is planning for the year ahead is ‘looking at the gaping holes in the levelling up agenda – whether it is about properly changing the course of healthy life expectancy in this country, whether that’s about the wealth question, or about ownership of that wealth’.

She concluded: ‘The North has been trapped at the sharp end of distant decision-makers in Whitehall and Westminster but the tide has turned, and while I know it’s going to be a choppy ride, I think we’re heading in the right direction.’

CV: Zoë Billingham

Current role:

Director of IPPR North.

Previous roles:

  •  Co-director of the Centre for Progressive Policy
  • Senior policy adviser at the Treasury and economic policy adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister during the coalition Government. She has also worked in finance.

           She is a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield

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Health Housing Local elections Scrutiny Devolution IPPR Queens Speech Mayors inequality Levelling up