In the media

It’s time for local leaders to unleash their creativity on levelling up

Marc Kidson

By Marc Kidson

The MJ

09 February 2022

This article was first published in The MJ

While the Levelling Up White Paper is strong on destinations - and includes some way markers – it is not a detailed roadmap for local leaders to diligently follow and implement. Rather than wait for more detail from the centre, this approach offers local leaders an opportunity to unleash their creativity and establish a personalised future for their region, which is specific to their unique challenges and opportunities. 

Purpose and priorities

When each of the 12 missions in the White Paper refers to an outcome that people care about locally, it can seem impossible not to run towards all of them at once. But the opportunity for local coalitions of partners will be to find the fewer areas of shared focus that makes sense in their context and that can create multiplier effects that will drive future progress on the others. When President John F Kennedy announced the original ‘moonshot’ in 1962, he was careful about using the phrase ‘we choose to go to the moon’.

As a place leader trying to prioritise, which are the challenges where you can say – as Kennedy did - we choose to focus here ‘because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win’? We have found working with the UK Freeports Programme, that skills often emerge as a key enabler, because potential investors are looking for local workforces to be skilled and you need to have a long-term plan that joins up employment support, education provision and business growth in order to get more people into work and progressing to higher wages. For other places housing – both quality and quantity – might be the issue to unblock a range of others: from the impact of poorly insulated housing on health, to whether new stock is well integrated into the civic and social infrastructure that makes places rewarding to live in.

People and places matter, not just data

Rather than looking to central government, purpose and priorities become clearer when we take the time to get to know our communities, what makes them distinctively great places to live but also what change is needed, beyond the headlines.

While the government’s commitment to improving the availability and useability of sub-national data and to provide interactive tools and maps is welcome, data alone never gives you the answers. It is most valuable when it combines both qualitative and quantitative insights into an authentic ‘story of place’ that can bring to life the case for change and help all partners see their role in the next chapter of that area. Moving beyond the technocratic use of data to command and control, a story-led approach can also help to bring community voices into the picture and build a platform for empowerment and involvement of communities rather than change that is done to them.

Making places work for people is about taking their own hopes and aspirations and finding ways to help reach them without having to leave the place they love. We have seen this at a very human scale in the way PA’s work on technology-enabled care has helped to make it possible for more people with care needs to remain in their own place – their home – and make it work for them safely. Used ingeniously, data and technology can enable a positive human future, whether at the level of home, neighbourhood, town or region.

Powers and pounds

Powers and pounds are the means, not the ends for making places work for people. The so-called ‘devolution revolution’ looks set to remain a conditional offer handed down from the centre. There will be plenty of people calling for the government to go further and faster on devolution, but in the meantime local leaders can start to get out in front of this debate by galvanising local responses for why new powers will deliver transformed results. We saw the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, do this last year when he presented a compelling vision for Manchester to be given the control and funding it needs to create a public transport system that is as reliable and affordable as the one enjoyed by Londoners. He had a clear statement of purpose; he prioritised the issue of public transport and he made it about the lives of real people in his place – and he won significant concessions from the government as a result.

Finally, we are all left asking, ‘where is the money coming from?’ to achieve the Levelling Up missions. Part of that answer needs to be longer-term funding settlements, a more joined up approach across Departmental agendas, with the lack of reference to addressing child poverty an obvious omission, along with less requirement to bid for different central pots, and more flexibility across core funding to respond to local priorities. But the answer may also lie in greater collaboration with the private sector to drive economic growth that benefits everyone. For example, when global mining company Anglo American created a new fertiliser mine and associated infrastructure in North Yorkshire and Teesside it was the largest private-sector capital investment programme in the North of England. The company’s investment will be transformative for the region – creating thousands of new jobs, supporting local businesses and boosting growth more widely. But major businesses need help to understand the local areas they will be investing in, to plug into the investments already being made by the public and private sectors and give back to the communities above and beyond the creation of high-quality jobs. For example, the Government used the Levelling Up white paper to signal further strengthening of the legislation on Social Value in public procurement, but many local authorities already go far beyond the minimum expectation. Councils as diverse as Bristol, Newcastle and West Sussex have put in place frameworks and policies that help their suppliers to understand and align with local priorities. This can and should become the norm and go beyond individual contract requirements to a strategy of partnership with the private sector.

Be a pathfinder, not a passenger

The Levelling Up White Paper has no central roadmap, and this offers a unique opportunity to local leaders – because if there were a central roadmap, all roads would lead back to Whitehall.

We are lucky in this country to have inspiring civic leaders, engaged business leaders and passionate communities who know the lay of the land for getting things done locally. They are the people whose ingenuity will make levelling up a reality.

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