With its new White Paper the Government says it has fired what it calls the ‘starting gun on a decade-long project to level up Britain’. With so many parts of the country at risk of falling behind, the Government is to be applauded for its aims to tackle regional inequalities in areas such as transport, education, health, economic growth and cultural activities.
The 322-page Levelling Up White Paper, published earlier this month, is the culmination of months of discussions between central government and the regions. Ministers have listened carefully, and the document shows a strong desire to tackle the issues that have held back much of the country for so long. However the devil is, as ever, in the detail. Is there enough money to deliver the government’s ambitions? And structurally, are we in a position to create the proposed new landscape, the prospect of which the Government so enthusiastically endorses?
Take devolution. The White Paper cites the Government’s desire to devolve more power away from Whitehall. Every town and city across the UK has its own challenges and priorities, and Key Cities welcomes the commitment to devolution and the fact that local authorities will be at liberty to develop and implement policies that work for them. Devolution is complex, with no one model working everywhere, and we appreciate that councils will have the choice to take such deals, rather than have them imposed. But there is still much to be worked out to enable the balance of power to be shifted.
Similarly, there is an opportunity for the new levelling up directors to be real change-makers within their regions. This is a promising development, but it must avoid further centralising activities. Will these new directors be champions or bureaucrats? Equally, the new national data strategy could be a really powerful tool in measuring regional disparities if developed in partnership with networks like ours. Key Cities is made up of 25 cities spread across the country, and we hope the new data strategy doesn’t merely become another stick to beat local authorities on centralised performance targets.
It was saddening that the White Paper had scant reference to tackling climate change – following COP26 and considering the urgency of the climate crisis, the environment needs to be at the heart of all policy, including in the context of levelling up.
Of course, levelling up activity requires money, and we welcome news that the bidding process for funding will be simplified. Yet the criteria for qualifying to receive cash remain unclear. Meanwhile, many of our members fear that money from the Shared Prosperity Fund will not match previous regional funding from the EU. We hope the Government will be able to bolster reserves so we can start to see changes in action, and quickly. And our overriding concern that local authorities will still need to compete against – rather than partner with – each other for funding remains unaddressed.
Changes on this scale require time and money, and we don’t have much of either if we are to truly offer equality of opportunity to people across the country by 2030. Whilst we welcome the push for a fairer UK, we now need the Government to put its money where its mouth is. Our Key Cities are primed and ready to help make these ambitions a reality, for the benefit of everyone in society.
Cllr John Merry is Deputy Mayor of Salford and chair of Key Cities, the national network representing urban UK.