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Grading the levelling up White Paper

Shows promise but room for improvement

By Theo Clay 4 February 2022 4 minute read

So, here it is. With 322 pages spanning 7,000 years of history, the levelling up White Paper has finally arrived and successfully knocked Downing Street parties off Twitter’s trending list. In an old life I was an English teacher, so for one day only I’m picking up my red marking pen again. There is a lot for charities to like—ambitious, data-driven goals involving civil society at many points. There is also plenty for the sector to complain about too—the paper has more references to the Medici family than to poverty or homelessness. The White Paper sets out an ambitious and positive framework for action on ‘levelling up’—but has less on the resources necessary to make it happen. This is the gap that needs to be narrowed if levelling up is to deliver for those who need it most.

What’s the good news?

Starting with the five pillars underpinning the new ‘Levelling Up policy regime’—we at NPC are delighted to see such a focus on a data driven approach. In the past we’ve called for charity sector data to inform levelling up metrics, so it’s brilliant to see the White Paper championing the use of ‘real time data at the local level’ along with the new civil society satellite at the Office for National Statistics.

Coming to the 12 missions set out in the paper, it’s great to see ambitious targets for crime, well-being, education and health inequalities. Some may raise an eyebrow about how getting 16 and 17-year-olds to clear up graffiti is going to reduce homicides, but the vision is there and we expect to see more detailed policy on delivery later. The promised White Paper on tackling these health inequalities will be the first place we will be looking for detail to underpin these targets.

Finally, considering past complaints from the sector about being ignored, civil society can be pleased with the recognition it’s getting here:

  • The paper much lauds an ‘Advisory Council’ to oversee levelling up’s progress, which will have a ‘Communities and Social Infrastructure’ subgroup—like the intelligence boards we at NPC have advocating for.
  • In a similar vein, a new ‘Community Spaces and Relationships Strategy’ is coming down the pipeline to look at ideas for improving community infrastructure around the country.
  • A few of Danny Kruger’s suggestions have been taken up, including trialling Community Covenants as part of a range of pilots to empower communities
  • A deposit of £44m from the Dormant Assets Scheme followed by a promised consultation this year on the remaining £880m will also be welcomed by those who have been pushing for a Community Wealth Fund.
  • Finally, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund looks to have a strong focus on social issues and will involve consultation with community groups, with the obligation to produce implementation plans, two things we at NPC have been calling for when we discussed levelling up ‘roadmaps’.

What else needs to happen?

This is of course, just a start. As many have pointed out, these targets are very ambitious and will require an equally ambitious commitment of funding, over decades, to be achieved. Given this, it was strange to see the detail on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund only reaching its £1.5bn-a-year total by its third year, and concerningly, with social programmes unlikely to form part of its allocations until 2024.

Secondly, considering poverty and homelessness were number one and two on people’s measures of success for the levelling up agenda when we polled them in 2021, it’s jarring to see them given such short shrift here. Even though mission one is focused on raising living standards, the metrics announced are focused on productivity and median weekly pay. This could support those in the middle, but will not necessarily lift up those at the bottom. There is a danger here, therefore, that in levelling up an area, we could end up entrenching inequalities within it.

We will also need to see the continued involvement of the breadth of civil society, if these promises are to become to a reality. Much depends on this Advisory Council, but it doesn’t appear to be independent from government, unlike the admired Climate Change Committee, so there is a danger it could be filled with friends and cheerleaders and offer little in the way of real scrutiny. Moreover, of the people announced to the council so far, only one could be classed as representing ‘civil society’.

What now?

More plans, policies and announcements will undoubtedly be hot on the heels of this White Paper, including those around health and communities already mentioned. But for now, there are three main areas of action on our minds.

Firstly, we at NPC are going to continue advocating for civil society involvement in this agenda. The government has said its next steps will involve setting up ‘local panels’ to serve as a sounding board for design and implementation at a local level. We will be pushing for strong representation of charities and communities on these boards at a local level, and on the Advisory Council at a national level.

Secondly, we want to work with government to ensure that the policies announced actually tackle the entrenched social issues the public care about. This will require more socially-focused funding than we have here, and certainly earlier than the 2024 start date within the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. We will be working to influence this fund and will suggest other ideas to help those most vulnerable.

Finally, we will be pushing for a long-term commitment. As the government itself has said, levelling up needs to be a generational project if it’s to be successful. We can see a gap emerging between this ambition and current plans to deliver. We will be working alongside government to close this gap.

The levelling up White Paper sets out an ambitious framework for action. But there is a gap emerging between the ambition and current plans to deliver levelling up says @NPCthinks: Click To Tweet