Levelling Up. Done that, got the T-shirt or a radical new idea?

Chris Shaw – Think Funding

You will have heard much about the UK Government’s Levelling Up agenda in the past few weeks. Boris loves a good levelling up quote, and Rishi Sunak’s budget was full of references to it, including the first allocation of funding for the programme. We even have a Government Department called Levelling Up now, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, led by Michael Gove, which must mean there is something to it. So what’s it all about, and is it a new idea or, in the era of sustainability, a recycled one with a change of name?

What does ‘levelling up’ actually mean? Do we have any clues?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a hint in a speech in early July when he said “Imagine if we could level up – not just lengthening London’s lead around the world. But closing the gap between London and the rest of the UK’s great cities. That would increase the national GDP by tens of billions.” He also invited places to come forward with ideas about how enhanced devolution might work.

If imprecision is at the heart of the definition at the moment, this is to be expected, I suppose. As you might expect, until the Levelling Up White paper is published later this year, no one knows for sure what the government really has in mind, other than the fact it was elected on a pledge to address regional inequality and to ‘level up’ the country, so it must mean something (we hope!).

Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough and parliamentary undersecretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is the man charged with leading the Levelling Up taskforce and building some clarity and focus into the Government’s ideas  as we approach the unveiling of the White Paper.

In a 6th October article, The Guardian gave Neil O’Brien an opportunity to define it, he said: “Levelling up isn’t about north or south, or city or town. It’s about restoring local pride.” In a more precise statement he added “The objectives of levelling up are clear. To empower local leaders and communities. To grow the private sector and raise living standards – particularly where they are lower. To spread opportunity and improve public services, particularly where they are lacking. And to restore local pride, whether that is about the way your town centre feels, keeping the streets safe or backing community life.”

Of course, think tanks everywhere have weighed in with a view. Centre for Cities [1] thinks levelling up should:

  • Increase skills spending in parts of the country that trail the current national average.
  • End austerity for local government to improve the day-to-day services that people across the country experience.
  • Reform local government and devolve powers to give local areas more power over services and spending.
  • Facilitate bus franchising across the whole country to improve services, but focus transport infrastructure predominantly in and around big cities where pressure on the network is greatest.
  • Invest in struggling city centres through a City Centre Productivity Fund to make them more attractive places to do business.
  • Target R&D spending in places that currently underperform but have enough existing activity to suggest that increased public spending would have greatest impact.

Meanwhile, LGIU [2] (Local Government Information Unit), says that the Government needs to address six key principles in the White Paper:

  • Clarity – The White Paper has to clarify what the government means by levelling up whilst allowing flexibility for locally-targeted action and scope for local leaders to make it their own.
  • Scope – New levelling up funding and other funding related to it and local growth strategies, such as the Towns and UK Shared Prosperity funds should extend beyond investing in hard infrastructure projects to social infrastructure and to measures that address inequalities in areas such as health and skills, with support for early intervention measures such as early years programmes and childcare services.
  • Partnership – Local leaders have to be given the tools to be able to fully contribute as partners to the levelling up project. Levelling up needs to go hand in hand with a decentralisation of power to local and sub-national governments, based on A New Settlement for Place.
  • Transparency – There has to be complete transparency – both in relation to the data and information used for making decisions and the reasons why policy and funding decisions are made.
  • Flexibility – Levelling up has to be and be seen to be relevant to local places, reflecting the priorities of and differences between local authorities, their communities and partners.
  • Accountability – The levelling up White Paper needs to set out clear objectives and timescales – at national and disaggregated levels so that progress can be scrutinised and outcomes measured including developing metrics for place-based wellbeing policy.

NCVO[3] has focused on the role of charities within the levelling up agenda. They suggest there are three areas where the government can take practical steps to support the third sector:

  • Power and decision-making. We want to see decision-making devolved, with more power in the hands of communities and local institutions – not detached from the centre but emboldened by a new partnership settlement.
  • Funding and resources. We want to see long-term funding secured through community endowments, boosted philanthropy, and more sustainable local government mechanisms and powers.
  • Community, space, and participation. We want the spaces and places in our communities to be hubs for building and harnessing relationships, opportunities, and ideas.

Whatever levelling up is, is it new? It’s hard to tell. Although not entirely clear, we can begin to see elements of previous economic regeneration programmes such as the Urban Programme, which prioritised disadvantaged areas but also offered scope for some citywide activity. And, of course, the EU’s Structural Fund and Investment Funds (ESI Funds, ESIFs) are financial tools set up to implement the regional policy of the European Union which aims to reduce regional disparities in income, wealth and opportunities.

However, what is potentially new about levelling up is the prospect of further devolution, maybe the ability of local government to raise funds at a local level, or to take more decisions about how funding is spent locally.

Levelling Up really is a case of watch this space right now.


Chris Shaw – Think Funding Owner and Director, Embark CSR

[1] https://www.centreforcities.org/publication/so-you-want-to-level-up/
[2] On the level: six principles to underpin the levelling up White Paper, LGIU, October 2021
[3] The levelling up agenda: developing a vision with charities and volunteers, NCVO, July 2021