Levelling-up: we’ve been here before and we need it to change

By Mike Palin | 25 June 2020

Recent weeks have echoed February as a flurry of reports provide comment and ideas on how we might ‘level-up’ between places seen as being left behind and places seen as more successful. The debate about how we might achieve a levelling up is now even more important as COVID-19 threatens to further entrench deprivation and a lack of opportunity in many places that were already suffering from the long-term impact of economic disadvantage.

Yet much of this commentary continues to see levelling-up as something new – ignoring the fact that for nearly 40 years we have had various initiatives intended to in some way support one place or another to rebalance, regenerate, or simply to economically grow. The simple truth is, we have been here before and we have been getting it wrong for some time.

This is not a full-fronted criticism of all the different schemes and programmes that have been implemented before but is a reflection of the fact that doing the same type of thing, over and over again, and failing to learn from one iteration to the next, is not the way to deliver a policy goal. As a country we must get better at delivering sub-national economic growth. 

Since 1980 there have been at least 28 different programmes or initiatives by Government with the stated intention of supporting economic growth or regeneration throughout the UK. From Enterprise Zones in 1980 to the Single Regeneration Budget of the 1990s and now Town Deals today we have been doing this for quite a long time.

Each iteration has created a new mix of institutional form, strategy development process, funding regime, and bidding process which has often failed to learn from what has gone before. On each occasion, little good practice seems to have been transferred from one to the next. From Training and Enterprise Councils, to Regional Development Agencies, to Local Enterprise Partnerships, Government has been obsessed with creating something new rather than on building on what we have.

The problem with this approach is that each time this has occurred, it has been Whitehall led and has acted with a blind arrogance towards anything else that has gone before. There is no institutional memory at the centre and instead of learning about what worked and what did not, everything previously done is binned with good practice and effectiveness inevitably ignored.

So what needs to change…?

First we need an “all Government” approach to tackling the deep-rooted causes of the economic imbalance between places. This is because there is a system of interactions between policy areas such as skills, education, economic renewal, and even health. All parts of Government must contribute to helping places left-behind.

Second, we need a scale of resource appropriate to the size of the task at hand. In asking for £15bn p.a. for 20 years the UK2070 Commission outlined how critical such investment is – and to those who say such is not possible, consider what Germany did in integrating East Germany after the wall came down – so it can be done when the political will, and investment is there.

Third, and specifically relevant here, is that Government must change its working relationship with Local Government and local areas. This is because local areas do have the institutional memory of what can work for their place, because local areas to have the real-world understanding of their place and what’s its weaknesses and opportunities are, and because local areas do have the ability to join-up delivery in a way Central Government cannot. Local Government is increasingly a system-integrator and achieving a levelling up needs an integrated and systemic leadership response.

Fourth, the centre needs to stop changing the rules of the game and let local areas get on. The churn of initiatives and expectations on local areas to produce new plans and new bids with each ‘new’ central policy iteration is disruptive to achieving the overall goal. It actively incentivises short-term planning when trying to fix a long-term problem. It is the fault of the centre that this occurs and local areas need commending for trying to stay on strategic course.

Fifth, we need to re-think being effective. Both central government and local government have a tendency in economic development to like the idea of doing certain ‘glamour’ projects and not fully understanding exactly what that project is meant to achieve – we tend not to apply a theory of change approach. Hence, we can often ignore simple things that make a big difference by chasing the next ‘innovative’ idea that does not really change a thing. This may seem technical, but it matters in the long-term because if you cannot demonstrate your ability to deliver, you legitimise a reason to take responsibility away from you down the line. For local government and local areas to be credible, it must deliver and deliver in an effective way.

Sixth, we need to talk about competence to deliver as much as we talk about capacity to deliver. For me, we haven’t necessarily got the right skill-sets, in the right places, and enough of it, for economic growth delivery to happen. Alongside that, there’s a tendency to talk a talk about the latest think-tank concept while delivery of a tangible result is left to one side. Actually delivering matters.

Will we be here again?

Some of the points above require a more fundamental, long-term change in the way we deliver sub-national economic development policy within England. That change will take bravery at the centre because it can only happen by a long-term empowering of the local.

More likely however is a continuation of the way things are currently done. The Towns Fund approach for example almost exactly mimics the way Growth Deals were done in 2014.  The reality is that we will, most likely, be here again and again. For local areas then the task is to maximise the resources you can obtain by tactically bending your own long-term approach to each iteration that comes from Government. In that sense, local areas must see ‘levelling-up’ as an opportunity and, an opportunity it must grasp.

Mike Palin is a former chief executive at St Helens MBC and a former executive director of a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). He is now managing director of GC Consulting.


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