By Dr David Waite, Urban Studies, University of Glasgow
The long awaited release of the Levelling Up white paper on 2 February promised to put meat on the bones on one of the UK Government’s most prominent domestic agendas. Widely touted but barely detailed since the Conservative government’s election success in 2019, levelling up has been somewhat of a slogan looking for a home. The following note presents a summary of the white paper and draws out initial implications for Scottish cities (based on an initial read).
What are the general themes?
The document is sprawling and expansive (over 300 pages) and covers a wide raft of issues and policy domains. However, certain issues take primacy and concerns for economic growth stand out. Whilst growth has prominence, other outcomes and issues, such as “social fabric”, “local pride” and “well-being” – plus some consideration given to the role of health in shaping the economy – are apparent in various forms.
“Missions” are a notable feature of the document, and – showing some connection to prior industrial strategy thinking – give a welcome reflection that the issues at stake will not be quickly addressed. Twelve “missions” are set out and 2030 is the date given for these; the question, however, is whether that is enough time given some of the ambitions set out. Whilst the mission label is popular, following the work of Mariana Mazzucato, it remains to be seen if the experimental and bottom up nature of mission-oriented policymaking will find full expression through the levelling up agenda (the technical annex provides a useful orientation for the missions, nevertheless).
Significant effort is given to detailing the spatial economy in this document – so how are cities, city-regions and regions considered? The document covers all bases here. There is a notable emphasis to have a “globally competitive city” (pg 120) in every part of the UK (definition to come!). This follows the agglomeration logic and the possibilities that emerge through large concentrations of economic activity. However, the document also reflects a great deal on the varied fortunes of towns. Spatial selectivity versus jam spreading has received significant attention from commentators, such as Paul Swinney, Philip McCann and Henry Overman, who ask questions about the merits of focusing on some large urban places – where greater purchase on outcomes may be achieved – versus a wider set of places (due to the need to satisfy constituency politics). The foreword by Secretary of State Michael Gove (with Andy Haldane) – which speaks of an “actionable plan for levelling up the UK, from Aberdeen to Antrim, Newport to Norwich” – points to a broad set of spatial concerns.
There is a lot of detailed analysis in the main report and technical annex (and some of this is perhaps surprising, such as figure 1.1 which presents an urban timeline dating back to 7000 BC (pg 2)). Through the analytical sections, geographies of concern can vary from deprivation data for small areas to overall regional performance. There is also some discussion on the role of neighbourhoods within cities and regions, and mention is given to “community covenants”, for example, which reflect approaches to engage local communities. In terms of the policy domains taking prominence, transport, skills, digital and housing feature strongly. Missions here point to: providing transport “closer to the standards of London”; successful high-quality skills training, gigabit broadband capabilities, and home ownership pathways, amongst other things (pg 120).
One key faultline for regional policy in the UK, over a number of decades, is whether policy should be people or place-focused. That is, to give the capacities for people to move to opportunities or move the opportunities to places where there are too few now. The document, as levelling up suggests, clearly puts emphasis on the latter and this is perhaps a document that aims to address, at its very core, the “places that don’t matter” (as coined by Andrés Rodrigues-Pose). However for some, like Overman, this singular focus may be problematic: “… if we remember that we should care more about the effect of policies on people than on places … we should judge the success of levelling-up on the extent to which it improves individual opportunities and on who benefits, rather than on whether it simply narrows the gap between places.”
The document is alert to the fact that steps need to be made to improve data and indicators at sub-national and local geographies. In this respect, a new “spatial data unit” will be established while the report points to a “Levelling Up Subnational Data Explorer” provided by the Office for National Statistics (pg 151). These are likely to be welcomed by policymakers.
In terms of issues warranting further detail, one notable area appears to be the climate (from a first read at least). Climate is not a mission, and is largely considered in the background of the white paper. If managing the transition from fossil fuels will be important in shaping regional development trajectories, it is not elaborated in much detail (see pg 52). Also, while there is mention of decarbonising industries and initiatives, this is done with a disquieting generality mostly. Perhaps the takeaways and urgencies from COP26 are being pursued elsewhere.
Another apparent absence – despite the document proving a useful timeline of prior policy attempts (pgs 108-9) – is whether we can learn anything from previous policy tools and approaches such as City Deals. The UK has a long history of starting then abandoning urban and regional policy initiatives, but what worked well and less well from the 2011 localism agenda (which rumbles on to some extent), would, you have hoped, featured explicitly in contemporary responses to the UK’s entrenched spatial divisions (the National Audit Office made a related point on the day the white paper was released). The attention given to mayors and “trailblazer deeper devolution deals” hints at implicit learning, perhaps (pg xxvii).
A final general issue to consider is the narrative that the UK’s second tier cities should be performing more like London and their international comparators. This perspective shoots through the report – for example, “If under‑performing cities in the North and Midlands were as productive as London and the South East, UK GDP could be boosted by around £180bn per year” (pg 98) – but are the comparisons always helpful or instructive? Given London’s particular role within the UK economy – including being the political and financial capital – and given the different institutional arrangements present in other urban systems, comparisons may not always provide appropriate or realistic benchmarks.
Implications for Scotland
As was clearly signalled, the levelling up agenda is seen to be for the whole of the UK. Indeed, Scotland features throughout the report, as do places within Scotland. A few notable observations fall out of the Scottish concerns:
First, the “central belt” is regarded as a thing/spatial entity in the white paper. This may be the reflection of past science and innovation audits, but the document goes beyond this to map indicators across a range of domains for this wider area. The central belt has ebbed and flowed in the imagination of Scottish Government policymakers.
Second, there is the idea of a Silicon Valley-style innovation approach for Glasgow. The report notes that: “the UK Government will target £100m of investment in three new Innovation Accelerators, private-public-academic partnerships which will aim to replicate the Stanford-Silicon Valley and MIT-Greater Boston models of clustering research excellence and its direct adoption by allied industries. These pilots will be centred on Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow City-Region” (pg xxi). One thing to note here is that when policymakers have, in the past, tried to emulate “silicon valley” type approaches the desired outcomes do not always emerge as hoped – regional differences matter. On the other hand, there is discussion in the white paper of linking to existing strengths (pg 146), which may offer some encouragement. Finally, the Scottish Government’s recent Logan review on the technology ecosystem does not get a mention, therefore raising questions about how this will all piece together.
The third point to consider is the implications of the devolution menu/framework for Glasgow and other Scottish cities. As suggested by table 2.3, all the focus is on England here, so it is less clear what the empowerment of local leaders will look like in a Scottish context. Previous concerns for local devolution have seen local authorities in the devolved nations clamouring, in some senses, to hang on to the coat tails of initiatives first designed for England; it is unclear whether this will change. The Local Governance Review in Scotland may be one route to consider this. The white paper, however, does gives welcome recognition of the “complex funding landscape” facing localities, as a result of localities needing to participate in multiple bidding rounds.
Across the white paper, it is hard to look past the constitutional politics of an activist UK Government involved in local policy/investments in Scotland. It is unsurprising that the Scottish Government’s response has been lukewarm at best. The release of the white paper comes on the back of recent pleas, strikingly, for the UK and devolved governments to work more closely together.
What to look for now
The bulk of concerns about the white paper, following its release, relate to deliverability. In short, funding seems scant given the challenges at hand, particularly when compared with other examples in history (as noted by Pike and others). Opposition politicians have been quick to allege that the Levelling Up white paper is little more than a series of rehashed announcements, while less generous parts of the commentariat point to an “anaemic” agenda.
A further consideration is whether the white paper presents the basis for a coherent agenda for regional policy or a potpourri of piecemeal initiatives. The Institute for Fiscal Studies argues that there is little evidence of clear prioritisation at this stage, at least.
For Scotland’s cities, the pound signs, where noted, will be welcomed by local leaders. There will also be more to look out for in terms of the Shared Prosperity Fund (with pre-launch guidance set out on the same day as the Levelling Up white paper). As has been the case for a while now though, the local leaders of Scottish cities sit at the interstices of varying policy moves made by the UK and Scottish governments; it remains hard to see how a coherent approach to urban and regional policy in Scotland will emerge from this.
Levelling Up image credit: © Crown copyright 2022. Licensed under the terms of the Open Government Licence v3.0