Industry gives mixed response to levelling up white paper

Levelling Up described as missed opportunity that doesn’t go far enough to spread opportunity across UK.

The UK government’s keenly anticipated levelling-up white paper has received a decidedly mixed response from a wide range of leading industry figures.

Although broadly welcoming the aims of the white paper, a lack of clarity on policy and funding detail, continued fears that regional devolution still falls short of providing both the funding and powers that local leaders require to effect real change and the glaring lack of any significant attention given to climate change were all flagged up as major areas of concern.

Here is an edited selection of a huge range of opinion that has landed here at Infrastructure Intelligence:

Guto Davies, head of policy at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), said: “While the 12 national missions are welcome to drive activity and ensure spending remains both targeted and on track, they are nothing without properly structured long-term financing for local government to realise these political ambitions. Our concern is that the current approach remains too compartmentalised to be truly effective.

“We do, however, welcome the longer-term view on levelling up. The truth is there is no panacea and only sustained investment over the longer term will address systemic and chronic issues. ACE is looking forward to continuing its role as a practical partner on levelling up, and will engage with the government on the forthcoming levelling up and regeneration bill which was previewed in the white paper.”

Peter Hogg chair of ACE’s places group, and UK cities director at Arcadis, said: “Our own proposals shared last November outlined a practical five-step process to deliver levelling up. While the white paper has gone some way to enabling this, we still feel it is a missed opportunity for a rounded financial framework which allows all local communities to truly flourish.

Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, said: “We now have a clearer idea of what the government means by levelling up, and it is ambitious in its scope and aims. We need an equally ambitious implementation programme if we want to achieve tangible change in the space of eight years. Infrastructure such as local transport and digital connections has a key role to play in local regeneration alongside other policies like education and skills. The white paper recognises this cannot be delivered by Whitehall alone and we welcome steps to broaden devolution to empower more local leaders to develop tailored infrastructure plans as part of their growth strategies. But this needs to be matched by urgent and fundamental reform of how local transport funding is allocated, with a shift from short term funding pots over which councils bid against each other, to long term devolved funding deals.” 

Andrew Jones, AECOM cities programme leader, said: “Whilst 2030 is setting the stall out for a long term plan, it doesn’t go far enough to recognise that we need a generational strategy if we are to truly level up the country – the UK is currently the most socially and economically unbalanced nation in Europe. The success of its missions will depend on local and devolved administrations having the resource and skills to achieve what’s possible – including bidding for funding, placemaking and achieving buy in from the community. Cash-strapped local authorities have insufficient numbers of experienced staff to make the case for, and then deliver, new schemes. They will need support.”

Richard Bonner, city executive for the north at Arcadis, said: “Overall, Arcadis welcomes the overarching ambitions of the levelling up white paper and the direction and support towards our great northern cities and towns. But we also recognise that the wellbeing of UKplc is underpinned by the overall economic performance of all regions of the UK, and we want to ensure that support and funding does not slow down economic growth in London and the south east for example. More broadly, while there is much to celebrate in the white paper, we look forward to seeing greater clarity on funding and how that funding will be implemented to deliver what has been promised effectively and in-line with the ambitious targets set.”

Stefanie O’Gorman, director of sustainable economics, at Ramboll, said: “While the ambition of the levelling up white paper is welcome, the piecemeal nature of the funding falls short of delivering the transformational change needed to create future-proofed liveable places. Investment must be strategically deployed to create long-term value. However, instead of providing a holistic, national strategy which local areas can tailor to their needs, the burden has been placed firmly on local authorities in a bun-fight for funding. Climate resilience and adaptation is glaringly absent from the levelling up white paper. Climate resilience and decarbonisation strategies must be embedded into public realm schemes from the outset if they are to be called a success.”

Simon McWhirter, director of communications, policy and places at the UK Green Building Council, said: "Today’s white paper is a missed opportunity to tackle the scourge of poor housing – a major national home retrofit programme is urgently required to insulate Britain’s left-behind areas from soaring gas prices, and to create tens of thousands of green jobs exactly where they’re most needed. Climate action can be a powerful engine behind regenerating left-behind areas, and improving both people’s quality of life and the quality of their neighbourhoods. This is a clear and worrying gap in the government’s vision of how to improve life chances and opportunities across the nation.”

Rohan Malik, EY’s UK managing partner for markets and accounts, said: “For welcome ambitions around broadband infrastructure, public transport and housing, burning questions remain around how they will be funded and how results will be demonstrated. The structural forces driving regional economic inequality are deep-rooted making levelling-up a long-haul project. That said, progress needs to be demonstrated in the short term and following the publication of the white paper the government will now need to define a clear action plan on what happens next. Emphasis on the role levelling-up can play in our sustainable economic recovery and the green industrial revolution is curiously absent.” 

Chris Richards, director of policy at the Institution of Civil Engineers, said: “Real substantial change will need consultation with those on the ground, on what the long-term challenges are so that sectors such as infrastructure know how to help. While there is still significant work to be done, the promise of transforming the levelling up missions into legislation is a step in the right direction.”

Sarah Longlands, chief executive of the Manchester-based Centre for Local Economic Strategies, said: “Even with 332 pages to fill out the detail and after two years of hype, the levelling up white paper lacks the focus and finance to get to the root of the problem - an economic system which fails to give people a stake in their local place through, for example, decent work, housing and transport. The levelling up white paper doesn’t offer a coherent roadmap for economic change but a scattering of special projects which together will do little to alleviate the challenges faced by those who have not only been left behind but kept behind for decades.”

Dr Arianna Giovannini, interim director of IPPR North, said: “What we’ve seen so far suggests that the white paper is a step in the right direction - with a commitment to broadening and deepening devolution, and ambitious missions. What remains nebulous in the white paper is whether the policy plans set will have adequate investment behind them. Without it, government rhetoric will fail, once again, to turn into reality. More devolution is welcome, but it should be open to all areas and not just a few selected on a competitive basis or cherry-picked by government. To truly empower localities, the government must let go. Regions like the north have the ability and resolve to level up for ourselves. Central government should recognise this. Our door is open to policymakers to work with us to achieve it."

Mark Kemp, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT), said: “ADEPT is pleased to see greater recognition given to the essential role of local government in achieving national aims. With much detail, funding and resource yet to be announced, we welcome the government’s ambition but wait to see the detail”.

John Merry, UK Key Cities chair and deputy city mayor for Salford, said: “The government has listened carefully and shown a real desire to reduce regional inequalities with this white paper, but the devil is in the detail – is there enough here, both in money and structurally, to level up the country? Many of our members are concerned that money from the Shared Prosperity Fund will not be sufficient to match previous regional funding from the EU. Our overriding concern that local authorities will still need to compete against, rather than partner with, each other for funding remains unaddressed. There is also sadly very little reference to tackling climate change and the commitments the government have already made. Following COP26 and considering the urgency of the climate crisis, we would reiterate that we have to put the environment at the heart of all policy, including in the context of levelling up.”

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, said: “The levelling up white paper published today is welcome, and it is particularly positive to see transport connectivity and rail services recognised within it.”

A spokesperson for Engineering UK said: “The white paper rightly identifies many of the challenges the country faces and brings together in a more coherent format the policies that already exist to address those, as well as announce some new ones. We now look forward to working with the different departments and the levelling up advisory council to develop some of the detail that will ensure that we as a country provide young people with STEM skills that they need in order to access the sectors that will create the jobs of tomorrow wherever they are.”

Gillian Charlesworth, CEO of the Building Research Establishment, said: “Local authorities will need clear support and direction if they are to deliver high quality housing within the community – but how in practice this can be achieved was missed by today’s paper. Another key area of opportunity missing from today’s white paper is a clear and long-term plan for decarbonising our buildings and training the hundreds of thousands of retrofit workers needed to deliver net zero. Measures that support a clear and effective plan to improve the quality and sustainability of the UK’s housing stock should be at the forefront of the government’s levelling up agenda – but today’s paper signals a missed opportunity to outline this.”

Click here for download options for the government's levelling up white paper.

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