Levelling Up is back. Only, don’t call it Levelling Up. After a series of on again off again rumours throughout last year, last week we had the announcement of the second round of the Levelling Up Fund. £2.1bn pounds of funding has been allocated to local authorities around the country for a series of projects aimed to improve local areas.
As soon as the official announcements were made the government was criticised by Labour and others in the media for skewing the funding away from ‘left-behind areas’. Isn’t Levelling Up meant to be about the North? Why is more funding going to productive areas like London and the South-East? Leaving aside the reasonable response that more people live in London, and that per person much more funding was going North, this criticism also misses a bigger issue with the agenda.
The concern the government’s critics have is that affluent areas are benefiting more from Levelling Up money than poorer areas. But here’s the kicker. We don’t know to what extent the funding is tackling needs anywhere.
This is because the way the government is collecting and sharing information means we cannot answer fundamental questions about if Levelling Up is working or not:
How much total Levelling Up money has each local authority received?
As the government is quick to point out, The Levelling Up Fund is not the sole vehicle for Levelling Up the country. We have a range of pots including the Future High Streets Fund, the Towns Fund and most recently, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. However, as the Levelling Up Select Committee pointed out in a letter to the Minister, Dehenna Davison, last month, there is no official list which pulls together how much money each local area is getting across all the pots. In fact, there is not even a definitive list of which pots are levelling up money, and which are not.
We conducted our own analysis which looked at this question, but without key pieces of information we cannot update or repeat it. For example, when the detail of funding is available, some of it is available at borough level and some at county council level, which makes comparisons impossible. The government has promised a spatial data unit which is aiming to pull some of this together but considering most of the Levelling Up Fund has now been distributed, this seems a little late.
What is this money being spent on?
Of course, knowing where the money is going is only half the battle. Knowing what it is being spent on is key to knowing if it meets needs. Again, this question is very hard to answer. The government will have seen full bids with project detail prepared by lead authorities, but from the published information the best we get is two sentences on project detail (in the case of the Levelling Up Fund) or no information at all (in the case of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, aside from Northern Ireland).
We may be glad that deprived areas are receiving money, but it’s not enough for an area with massive levels of homelessness to get a £2m grant, if it’s going to a project totally unrelated to that issue. And as our polling showed, people see these social issues as central parts of Levelling Up. This is another area where the criticism of the government is short-sighted, London and the South have their fair share of these issues. Telling someone from Tower Hamlets that you are doing nothing to tackle poverty in the area because it scores pretty well on productivity metrics is unlikely to fly.
Is Levelling Up funding meeting needs across the country?
If we don’t know how much each local authority is receiving, or can’t see detail on what the projects are for some funds, then we can’t tell if Levelling Up is a success. It’s as simple as that. This week, Dehenna Davison teased, in front of the Levelling Up select committee, that the plan to have Levelling Up Directors may be scrapped. Some expressed concern at the lack of oversight that this will mean for the project. This again, seems to miss the point. No-one will be able to tell if Levelling Up is a success until the government starts publishing consistent data about what funding is going where, and what it is being spent on. Whether this is the Levelling Up Directors, Labour’s proposed Levelling Up Council, or Lisa Nandy with an abacus, scrutiny is impossible without detail on delivery.
And this is all before we get into questions raised elsewhere of how inflation will affect bids planned before the Ukraine war, the flaws in the bidding process, or what the project is even trying to achieve in the first place—not helped as the government seems set on retrofitting its criteria of success to suit the bids it receives.
Levelling Up’s branding issue captures this problem perfectly. Scepticism around the name masked the fact that we all agree that tackling inequalities is a good thing. However, it was too easy for many to dismiss the project as an election slogan backfitted into a policy. The Levelling Up White Paper was a response to this and went to great pains to show it was serious about identifying the problem. But until the government is able to look clearly at what is and is not working, we cannot be serious about identifying a solution.