Levelling up – local leadership, living standards, public services and pride of place

Matthew Guest asks what Michael Gove's forthcoming white paper might reveal, and how it could be relevant for higher education

Matthew Guest is Policy Manager at GuildHE

“Levelling up” has been a much-used phrase since Boris Johnson took office in 2019 – but no one can agree on exactly what it means or how it can happen in practice, despite the fact that a white paper on it is imminent.

The Cabinet reshuffle back in September put Michael “getting things done” Gove in charge of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Gove has been tasked with both defining and enacting levelling up policy – and the fact that there has been a long delay suggests some serious thought (or rewriting) has been going into it.

New year, old ideas?

Just before Christmas, Politico published an article on how far the white paper might go. That article said:

Gove has already dropped hints about its likely focus, explaining that he thinks ‘levelling up’ rests on improving four key areas: local leadership; living standards; public services; and “pride of place.” Civil servants, MPs and government aides say there’s likely to be a heavy emphasis on the fourth pillar — sometimes referred to as ’civic pride’.

This is not surprising because there is another member of the ministerial team at DLUHC with responsibility for levelling pp – Neil O’Brien. His remit alone gives an indication of what levelling up might mean. Back in March 2020, O’Brien published a paper arguing that levelling up should involve investment in transport, infrastructure, innovation and culture outside of London and the South East.

To an extent, the Chancellor’s Build Back Better Plan for Growth in March 2021 picked up some of these themes – notably transport, infrastructure and innovation – and that policies enacted in these areas should also meet levelling up (along with Net Zero and Global Britain). And there has of course been a subsequent Innovation Strategy.

But both the Plan for Growth and the Innovation Strategy point to the forthcoming levelling up white paper for how this will happen in practice.

From this, you would think that whatever levelling up is, there has been no activity related to it. Well, you’d be wrong. There have been several schemes and funding streams that provide some hints.

Ports in a storm

Firstly, there is the Freeports initiative. James Coe gave an excellent overview of why universities should care about freeports in December. Eight have been announced in England with more to follow in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As James says, universities have the opportunity to join up such initiatives with other placemaking opportunities…

…which leads us nicely onto the funds, of which there have been several including:

The Community Renewal Fund itself is a precursor to the long-awaited UK Shared Prosperity Fund – essentially, the replacement for the EU’s Regional Development Funding – and it’s expected that the white paper will outline the role of UKSPF.

The Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up (CILUP) at the University of West London did some rapid analysis of where the first rounds of spending from the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund went.

What is clear is that the projects supported by all these funds are starting to hit those four objectives outlined in the Politico article: local leadership; living standards; public services; and pride of place being funded outside of London.

The need for nuance

This emphasis points towards “new” money being spent out of London and the South East. And that that direction will continue. November’s spending review stated:

The government will ensure that an increased share of the record increase in government spending on research, development and innovation over the SR is invested outside London, the South East and the East of England.

This is something many in the research sector welcome, and is something that GuildHE has long advocated for. Many specialist and smaller institutions are located in smaller towns and cities and in rural and coastal areas outside of the South East of the UK, and have the potential to lead socioeconomic development given such a shift in funding.

However, levelling up has to be more than a “simple” redistribution of regional spend as that will not solve the underlying challenges of why places need to be levelled up. The government itself talks about “opportunities for all” and “no community left behind” when it talks about levelling up. Does this mean the government also sees levelling up as tackling inequalities?

If you genuinely want to increase opportunities for all then you need to address intra-regional challenges at the very least. Add an even deeper level of making sure no community is left behind, and you need to deal with entrenched inequalities within Britain’s larger and more apparently productive cities – such as London where you have extreme wealth and extreme inequalities juxtaposed with one another.

Can universities “own” levelling up?

Smaller and specialist universities have a major role to play in this regard through their combined offer of education, research and knowledge exchange. This means they can play to the skills agenda through training, developing and retaining talent for their local regions and industries.

They can carry out relevant, practical research linked to local needs at the same time as being world-leading experts for different professions and industries. They have access to different audiences and can use different engagement skills when working with diverse communities. And through understanding local (and sometimes national) government objectives, they can facilitate valuable convening roles for business and wider civil society in different regions, cities and towns.

At the same time, sector-wide initiatives such as the Civic Universities agenda and the Knowledge Exchange Concordat chime with what might be in the White Paper. Collective projects such as the London Higher Civic Map demonstrate the different ways in which institutions of all shapes and sizes are local leaders driving forward innovative socio-economic and cultural development initiatives.

And as such, it is striking how much of the higher education’s sector resonates with wider civil society as demonstrated by NCVO’s arguments for the roles of charities and volunteering in levelling up. The advantage that universities have is that the government already sees the benefit of research and development in driving socioeconomic recovery and growth and has invested in this.

For example, in recent weeks, Research England has granted money for participatory research, policy engagement and knowledge exchange to many universities, including smaller and specialist institutions.

This gives us a unique chance to seize the momentum, use our capacity and capability to listen to and work with our different communities. If we do so, we will define what levelling up really means for us and more importantly our localities and regions, no matter where in the country we are. Are we up to the challenge? I certainly believe so.

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