A version of this blog was originally published on The MJ.co.uk on 30 June 2021.
What exactly is the ideology of this government? For lots of people, trying to work that out is tricky and perplexing. Is it for sound money or for spending whatever it takes? Does it want more global trade or does that only apply to countries outside of the EU? Is it for decentralisation or for crack units in the centre running the country? It’s really not that clear.
But one thing is certain: they want to do something called ‘levelling up’ to our country—and most people are for it. Of course, what levelling up means is largely undefined and perhaps deliberately left vague, so everyone has their own interpretation. After the Conservative by-election defeat in the leafy, southern constituency of Chesham and Amersham, there are some calls for levelling up to apply to every area—which slightly makes you wonder whether that is taking it a bit too far.
For the Prime Minister himself, it is ‘giving everyone growing up in this country the opportunity they need, whoever you are, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your background.’ But, while no one can really disagree with that spirit, they can and do have very different ideas on what levelling up should look like in reality. And that may spell some difficulties for the government, if their levelling up does not match what the public think it means.
What the public thinks about levelling up
To explore this a bit further, we at NPC commissioned a nationally representative poll. And what does it show? Well, it certainly shows that the agenda resonates with the public: almost half of people around the country feel their area should be levelled up (48%). So far so good, even if it suggests that targeting the more deprived areas is not how some people see the policy working. The slogan works!
And then, when we asked people what they think having their area levelled up would mean, the biggest priorities were reduced homelessness (36% placing this in their top three factors), poverty (36%), crime (34%), and unemployment (32%). Fair enough, you might think, but when we analysed the various levelling up funds announced so far by the government, alongside these polling insights, we found that these social needs are not really where the money is going to be directed.
As we present in our latest research, Should we ‘level up’ social needs?, the funding rules set by government mean that over 90% of the £8.77bn of levelling up funding is likely to go on capital investment. Even within that, the capital investment is targeted at quite a narrow range of things, like transport, a thriving high street, museums, parks and public spaces.
All of these are of course vitally important, as are things like decent schools and health provision. But homelessness and poverty matter too. And so does having a healthy local civil society—joining people up, creating trusting relationships, helping those who are socially isolated and in need, as well as just being great fun—something that our work suggests is less likely to be the case in more deprived towns and places. Clearly it is not social needs that the government has in mind to level up.
There is of course political capital in shiny new buildings—especially if they can be unveiled before the next election in ‘Red Wall’ seats. But the problems people rated highly are not the ones a new building, bridge or tarted up high street can solve.
Meeting the public’s expectations
So, what should a government that wants to avoid hitting the wrong target do? Here are a few ideas.
First, trust places—and the charities, social enterprises, businesses and councils in those places—to know what they need to do to level up their area, and who they need to partner with. The criteria for existing and future funds should be expanded to support investment in programmes and services that address social needs as well as physical infrastructure.
Second, the government needs to give local authorities the freedom to bring local charities, charitable funders, and community groups into their levelling up plans. There’s an army of charities out there who could be supporting this agenda, but the government is not yet even talking to them very much. Charities are already working on issues like homelessness and poverty every day, so with some sensible changes to the rules, the government can further empower them to do what they do best—tackle this country’s biggest social needs.
Third, put more power in the hands of local people. Areas prioritised for funding should produce a local roadmap, setting out how they will use the funding, in combination with their other work, to level up their areas both socially and economically. This roadmap should be informed by data and be produced in consultation with local charities, social enterprises, and businesses.
And fourth, at the national level, the government should seek the insight of charities of all sizes, local businesses, community groups and faith groups, to help shape the future of the levelling up agenda. This should feed directly into the new Number 10-Cabinet Office unit tasked with driving through the forthcoming white paper on levelling up. The money being put into levelling up, including the upcoming £1.5bn per year UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the replacement for the European Structural and Investment Funds, provides an opportunity to make levelling up more than a pork barrel exercise. It would be a massive own goal to waste it.