To level up we need to invest in the place-based skills of councils

By Pooja Agrawal | 16 November 2021

The Government's commitment to its ‘Levelling Up’ agenda was underlined a few months ago with the renaming of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). 

Whilst many of us have spent the last few weeks grappling with the new acronym, local government is keen to know what ‘Levelling Up’ actually means in practice, given the loss of its named recognition in the Department’s rebrand. All eyes and ears were on last month’s Autumn Budget, which saw the first round of allocations of the £1.7bn Levelling Up Fund announced. The Fund has been billed as ‘investment in the infrastructure that improves everyday life in the UK’, but this somewhat vague definition leaves local authorities with more questions than it answers. 

A key question lies in whether this funding could start to mend the fractured relationship between local and national government, strained significantly by a decade of austerity which saw a 38% reduction of central government grants to local authorities. The Local Government Association was quick to respond, stating that the new Levelling Up White Paper ‘presents an opportunity to reset the relationship between central and local government and put councils at the heart of delivering the Government’s ambitious programme to improve opportunities in all parts of the country.’ However, one could see this as funding that was taken away from local authorities in the first place, only to be given back in a competitive project-specific approach with larger politics at play. One could also question whether this fund really recognises the role of local authorities as not only being the linchpin in the delivery of these funds but also the stewards of places in the long term. 

This funding was never really about levelling-up all parts of the country. This was made quite clear upfront, with areas prioritised through a methodology that targets places with the most need of economic recovery and growth, improved transport connectivity and regeneration. 

Analysis of the first round of funding demonstrated that the North West is set to receive the most funding, with the highest number of successful project bids, including by local authorities such as Wirral, Liverpool City Region and Manchester. This is followed by the West Midlands, the East Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber. While there is a clear need for investment and funding in the Midlands and the North West, it is important that local Authorities don’t buy into the politics at play here, and find ways to work collaboratively, share learning and establish models for best practice across the country. Despite there being different contextual issues at play in different places, there are also a number of similar issues local authorities face from managing vacant units to identifying assets and bringing development forward. 

Another key question is on delivery, and whether local authorities have the capacity and right skills in-house to be able to deliver these ambitious plans. I recently gave evidence to the House of Lords’ Built Environment Committee alongside Grant Butterworth, head of planning at Leicester City Council. Grant passionately stated how he had worked through three rounds of recession, but the current last 12 months had seen a crisis of public sector capacity like no other. Leicester is currently losing graduate-level planners to London where they work remotely on higher salaries, but perhaps without the necessary place-based knowledge that is required to deliver high quality places for communities. 

This capacity crisis raises serious questions around delivery, and whether local authorities have the in-house skills to deliver ambitious plans. We know from the last round of the Public Practice recruitment delivered in London, the South East and the East of England that around half the roles required were for Regeneration and Economic Development, a skill that councils across the country are struggling to recruit to deliver their Levelling Up projects. However, it is important to state that it is not only ‘regeneration’ skills that are required for delivering these projects. We need a holistic place-based approach of delivery, with community engagement skills, infrastructure coordination, urban design, and sustainability skills. There is also a catch-22 here of authorities with already stretched resources diverting capacity and time to bid for this funding, and leaving out some authorities with no resource to even consider bidding for funding, and therefore deepening the resource gap.

Despite there being an overarching narrative from this Budget about individual and community responsibility to tackle the societal and economic challenges we currently face, in order for the Levelling Up agenda to have a meaningful impact on individuals and communities, we need well -resourced authorities. Along with capital investment in places, we need investment in the capacity and multi-disciplinary place-based skills of councils in order to create the long-term vision and deliver these projects on the ground to truly ‘level-up’ those places, with and for the communities that need it the most.

Pooja Agrawal is CEO of Public Practice

Public Practice is currently open for Expressions of Interest from Local Authorities and other public sector organisations in London, the South East and the East of England for a range of roles including regeneration and economic development, urban design and environmental sustainability. Deadline: 6th of December, more information: https://www.publicpractice.org.uk/authorities



 

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