Writing White Christmas, eighty years ago, Irving Berlin created what went on to become the best-selling song of all time. Localists, like me, are dreaming of a different type of white Christmas, a white paper Christmas, just like the ones I used to know, where policy plans materialise, and Local Government News serialises them to put local authorities in the know.
Berlin apparently told his musical secretary to 'Grab your pen and take down this song. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote but it’s the best song anyone ever wrote'. I’m imagining a different secretary of state telling his civil servants to grab their pens as he does the same.
In this dream, that secretary of state’s song would become the best white paper anybody ever wrote because at its heart would be renewing the purpose of local government. The legacy would see levelling up become more than a slogan waiting for a blizzard of policy announcements that melt away as fast as they come. Instead, it would lay the foundations from which we rebuild, not just from the pandemic, but from decades of centralisation.
But what should it say? For me three ‘tests’ would be breadth, depth and deliverability.
Firstly, does the White Paper define what we mean by levelling up and avoid setting one part of the country or one community against others? The first test would be whether the levelling up white paper speaks to the whole country about raising standards of living, happiness and productivity in tangible and relatable ways. I’m optimistic Michael Gove will refer back to Andy Haldane’s comment from 2016 that the economic pie has not risen rapidly, and the pie has been unevenly sliced and set out a plan to increase the size of the pie and how it is distributed.
The ingredients need to level up the nation (compared to other nations) with measures such as benchmarking our innovation capabilities in future industries and investing in the places where there is potential to be world leading. Then it needs to level up regions (for every part of the country) with measures that understand productivity potential at place level and raising the standard faster in places that need it most. The third element is to level up within communities (for everyone in every community), putting measures like children’s well-being indicators and reducing inequality front and centre of why we invest in early years and children’s services.
Secondly, does the white paper change the fundamentals or simply announce sparkly programmes that some organisations in some places can apply for? One-off central programmes – however large – are challenging if mainstream funding is being reduced. We could unleash ingenious local responses to distinctive local issues and challenges with more core funding and greater trust in local leaders everywhere to spend wisely on adult skills and investment. Funding and finance reviews then need a firm timetable for reporting and reforming.
We can do better things. It’s fifty years since Julian Tudor Hart described a perverse relationship between those who most need medical care and those most likely to receive it. It still applies. Supported by NHSEI and the LGA, we are helping places develop population health management insight in partnerships that develop locally led solutions that make a difference. The white paper should support that work.
My third test would be to empower places to make it happen. Government needs short term tangible and visible wins. Places need long term sustainable solutions. Both are possible, if we trust local leaders and rely on local democratic process to hold them to account.
Levelling up is not just about local government but the white paper should enhance local leaders’ ability to influence their area. National agencies and departments should be responding to local priorities not just their organisations’ ambitions. The Williams Shapps Plan for Rail says 'empowered, locally led teams will support levelling up and be accountable to the people and places they serve.' This approach to rail reform should apply across government policy.
Councils will get on with it irrespective of what the white paper says by collaborating, engaging partners and communities and bringing in investment. But they could go further and faster if the Government made it easier, trusted them to do it, and local people could hold them to account. A White Paper like that could, like the song, become a classic we remember for years to come.
We just might have to wait until the New Year to find out.