100 days on, what has happened to the levelling up white paper?

Today marks 100 days since the Government finally published its long overdue Levelling Up White Paper. A great deal of work went into the paper, and there was much fanfare when it was released. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the delivery of it since.

And perhaps this anecdote is most telling of the progress. Days after the publication, I went on 11 weeks of parental leave. Upon my return to the office the briefing on levelling up was this: there’s nothing to brief.

Some people will see this as overly harsh. The war in Ukraine has diverted both headlines and the time of politicians and civil servants. The cost of living crisis and Partygate have limited column inches and broadcast time for levelling-up announcements. There has also been some progress, such as the long overdue allocations of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) and the sorting of some internal wiring in the proposed Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

But if levelling up is ‘more important than ever’ as Michael Gove claimed on the BBC’s Panorama programme this week, then why has nothing been stated publicly bar a couple of reheated funding announcements and, in the case of the SPF, the replacement of funding that was previously provided by the EU (only smaller)? Why has there not been extensive external consultation with the many organisations willing to help the development of the agenda in the way there was when the white paper was in production?

We’ve also seen little action based on the devolution framework (one of the most promising things in the white paper). There has been no further steer on where in the country extra R&D money will be spent and there has been precious little detail on what exactly the 20 ‘Boris Boroughs’ or the three Innovation Accelerators announced in the white paper will be.

A big trap for any government white paper is that its publication becomes the end in itself. A huge amount of civil servant and policy wonk time is poured into creating the document, then the circus rolls out of town and delivery becomes an afterthought. One hundred days down the line – and 100 days even closer to the next election – the same fate looks like it is befalling the levelling up agenda.

Last week’s local election results suggest that that latter point may be less important to voters than originally thought. The Conservatives’ loss of vote share was much lower in the North and Midlands than elsewhere, while there was even a swing from Labour to the Tories in a great number of northern wards.

But levelling up is still vital to closing the gaps in economic prosperity and life chances that have existed across the country for at least 100 years. And it’s important for improving the productivity woes of the national economy by addressing the serial underperformance of most of the country’s largest cities.

So, what should happen in the next 100 days to kickstart an agenda that, as a country, we really need to succeed? Here are three suggestions:

1. Don’t confuse the cost of living crisis with the levelling up challenge

It is no surprise that the cost of living crisis is being linked to the levelling up challenge. That said, while it seems likely that rising costs will make levelling up harder, the two things are separate issues. Any response to cost of living increases that the Government may do will hopefully be short term in their nature to deal with immediate pressures. Levelling up policies should be long term in their focus to deal with the long-term nature of the problem. There’s a risk that the latter gets subsumed by the former if this isn’t recognised.

2. Backfill on the detail of specific policy announcements made in the white paper

There were a number of eye-catching policies in the paper, such as the Innovation Accelerators and the 20 ‘Boris Boroughs’, which are aimed to be Kings Cross-style developments. However, beyond announcements identifying Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow to be the homes of the former and naming three of the 20 places to benefit from the latter (Sheffield, Wolverhampton, and Blackpool), there is very little detail available about what these schemes actually are.

If the Government wants to get on with the job of levelling up, surely developing these proposals is one of the most obvious next steps. This should be done in tandem with the development of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which was part of this week’s Queen’s speech. It lays the groundwork for extending devolution, which brings us on to point three.

3. Show progress on the devolution framework

One of the most positive things in the white paper was the setting out of a devolution framework to show the powers that are on offer to places, depending what form of leadership model they are willing to adopt, with those accepting the mayoral model unlocking the most powers. It is understandable that the negotiations of these deals will take time, and engagement has begun with some places. At the very least, though, the Government should issue a progress update to reveal the appetite so far and to hopefully cajole other areas into action for fear of missing out.

A further 100 days takes us to mid-August, and will be more than half a year on from the white paper’s publication. Let’s hope that the Government has more homework to be marked in the following 100 days than in the last 100. If it doesn’t then it’ll be ever more likely that we won’t see anything of substance before the next election.

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100 days on, what has happened to the levelling up white paper?