Go big or go home

By Lord Bob Kerslake | 03 March 2020

Given that my 65th birthday was this February (hard to believe, I know), you might find it odd that I have chaired a commission whose timescales look  forward to the next fifty years.

The UK2070 Commission’s role thoughout has been to look at spatial inequalities – often but incompletely described as the north south divide – and to do this justice you have to look over long timescales; back 50 years and forward 50 years.

We have been working as a commission for 18 months now and published our final report the day before my birthday.

It laid out starkly the scale of the challenge we face to rebalance the UK economy. We are the most unequal large-sized economy in the developed world. Despite the best efforts of successive governments the gap has grown wider, and unless we take action the gap will grow wider still.

To take just one statistic, GDP per head in London has grown by more than nine  times that of the Northern Powerhouse Regions over the last decade. This economic imbalance is matched by other inequalities such as health, as shown in the report by Sir Michael Marmot.

The consequences if we fail to tackle this widening productivity and wealth gap is that everybody loses. Modelling by Cambridge University on behalf of the commission forecasts continuing real house price increases  and longer commuting times for those who live in London and the south east as well as growing environmental challenges.

Our commission was clear that this is not mission impossible. The example of Germany demonstrates this - where a concerted effort has made a real difference. However we are clear that it will not be done without a radical change in direction. Past policies have been too fragmented, too short term and too small in scale. These have been 'pea shooter’ policies that have been outweighed by the huge infrastructure investment that has gone in to the south.

Since we started our work, we have seen the election of the Johnson Government, committed to levelling up the country. This is welcome. But without a large scale, cross government, long term plan it will not succeed. In our report we propose a Shared Declaration of Intent is signed across all parties, business, local government and the community. We also set out 20 priorities for action ranging from greater investment in  infrastructure, raising skills, better harnessing the research and development capacity outside London and the South East, empowering places to develop local growth plans and of course, a step change in devolution of powers and funding to local and combined authorities. It comes as no surprise that the OECD finds us as being one of the most centralised country as well us being one of the most unequal.

There will be a cost to this. As well as the increase in infrastructure investment needed to deliver a connectivity revolution, we propose tripling the Shared Prosperity Fund (to replace European Structure funds) from £5bn a year to £15bn a year and sustaining that for at least 20 years. But there will also be a big cost if we fail to level up, not least the sense of disillusion if another promise of change is not delivered. The worst thing for all would be to raise expectations that are not met. For this reason, we have said that the Government needs to ‘Go big or go home’.

With an increase in investment, levelling up need not be a ‘zero sum game’ but benefit the whole country, north and south, towns and cities, urban and rural. The whole of the UK in 2070 could be fairer and stronger, with or without me there to enjoy it.

The Ten Point Programme of Action

Action 1: A Spatially Just Transition to Zero-Carbon

Ensuring there is an explicit spatial dimension in the UK’s plan to become zero carbon by 2050.

Action 2: Delivering a Connectivity Revolution

Creating a transformed public transport network between cities, within cities and beyond cities.

Action 3: Creating New Global Centres of Excellence

Harnessing increased investment in research and development to create ‘hub and spoke’ networks of excellence across the country to complement London and the wider south east.

Action 4: Strengthening the Foundations of Local Economies

Empowering local leadership in towns and local communities to deliver increased local economic growth and wellbeing.

Action 5: Rethinking the Housing Crisis

Recognising housing as part of national infrastructure and ensuring that supply of new housing meets the needs of the economy.

Action 6: Harnessing Cultural and Environmental Assets

Increasing the focus of policy and funding of assets outside of London.

Action 7: Implementing a Comprehensive Framework for Inclusive Devolution

Allow different places to step up through different levels of devolution according to local ambition, need and capacity.

Action 8: Future Skilling the United Kingdom

Develop a national plan to raise attainment levels, especially in future skill needs for all areas to achieve the levels of the best performing places.

Action 9: Levelling-up the Playing Field: Fairer Access to Funds

Triple the size of the Shared Prosperity Fund to £15bn per annum for 20 years with clear spatial priorities; and change the way major projects and local priorities are able to be funded and assessed.

Action 10: Shaping the Future: A National Spatial Plan for England

Task the National Infrastructure Commission to create a national spatial plan for England and linking to those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to guide investment and to support local and regional spatial plans.

Changing our Institutions and Processes

In order to deliver the above actions a powerful cross-ministerially-led government committee needs to be established with a dedicated team, to oversee the delivery and embedding the purposes of levelling-up and spatial analysis, supported by flexible funding and new measures of success, including a review of the Green Book appraisal methodology.

Lord Bob Kerslake is chair of the UK2070 Commission and former head of the civil service

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