The long-delayed levelling up white paper, finally published today, was the government’s attempt to describe the problem it has pledged to solve and its strategy to solve it. Weighing in at over 300 pages, it set out 12 ‘missions’ to reduce regional inequality in many dimensions, both economic and social, by 2030, and proposed a set of structural changes and policies to achieve them. This broad agenda touches on almost every area of government policy .
As the white paper acknowledges, and previous IfG research has shown, this is not the first government to try to address regional inequalities. So the question to ask is “why will this time be different?” There are some welcome and ambitious proposals – especially on devolution – that are steps in the right direction. But despite the many pages, there is still a lack of detail behind how these proposals will work, and a shortage of policies which could actually make the missions succeed. Without them, we cannot be confident that this government will succeed where others have failed.
A common criticism of the phrase “levelling up” is that it has been used so widely as to be almost meaningless. Rather than narrowing down what it means, the white paper embraces this breadth. The 12 missions cover the economy, public services, pride in local places and local leadership.
The government has – rightly – recognised that success on this broad range of entrenched inequalities will not be solved overnight, and it has therefore set long-term goals for improvement by 2030. It has also set clear metrics by which it should be judged – like regional differences in living standards and wellbeing – which the IfG has previously called for. Progress on all 12 missions would represent major policy success. In this sense, it is a very ambitious agenda.
However, this breadth of ambition means it will be difficult to retain focus. Clear political guidance will be needed to determine which mission is the highest priority, and ensure the agenda drives government policy over the next few years. The white paper begins with a list off past policies that the authors say have already contributed to levelling up – everything from changes to immigration rules to changes to the Universal Credit taper rate. This hints at just how hard it is likely to be to use the paper’s expansive set of objectives to steer future policy prioritisation.
Delivering such an ambitious agenda requires a new approach to succeed where previous governments have not. After providing an extensive analysis of why previous attempts have failed – including the fact that policies have been changed so often in the past – the white paper identifies better policy coordination at the centre of government and empowering local leaders as the route to success.
On both of these fronts, the white paper proposes changes to policymaking and devolution which, if delivered, would represent genuine and radical reform. To ensure that levelling up is a “golden thread” running through central government decision-making, the paper proposes annual progress reports on its missions, assessing the impact of every policy on spatial inequality, a new levelling up advisory council and a more rigorous approach to evaluation so the government knows what policies are working.
The government’s ambition for further devolution, including a new simplified devolution framework, would mean more than half of the population covered by directly elected mayors and would represent substantial transfer of power to lower levels of government.
These proposals for devolution are substantive and ambitious. The changes to policy-making are equally welcome, if underdeveloped. But many of the white paper’s policies do not match the level of the government’s stated ambition. While the recent spending review meant there was never likely to be much new money announced today, the specific policies listed – £100m for three ‘innovation accelerators’, for example – are mostly small and unlikely to make major differences to regional economies.
The government is already halfway through the parliament, so it is fast running out of time to demonstrate progress before the next election. Any policy announced before May 2024 is unlikely to have time to make big progress on any of the missions set out today. However, despite the length of the white paper and the fanfare around its publication, the government still needs to flesh out its ideas and ensure that these initiatives endure – breaking the cycle of constant churn in regional economic policy.
More detail is needed on proposed changes to central government decision-making, including on how the advisory council will interact with policymakers, how the civil service will organise to deliver the agenda (including by supporting the new cabinet committee), what the annual reports will include and how spatial analysis of policies will work in practice. There are also more metrics expected to be added to the set laid out today.
On devolution, the government will need to grapple with local opposition to mayoral models that has prevented widespread adoption in the past. And while the white paper acknowledges that the many different funding pots that local government bids into need simplifying, it stops short of providing a worked-through solution.
The white paper shows that the government has large ambitions to reduce regional inequalities. Its targets are set for 2030, but that means building on and develop these ideas as soon as possible if it is to deliver where its predecessors could not.