Levelling up white paper falls way short of what is needed

Sarah Longlands, chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies.

The chief executive of the Manchester-based Centre for Local Economic Strategies, Sarah Longlands, says the government’s levelling up white paper falls way short of what it needs to deliver real change.

As an organisation with a keen interest in and focus on improving the health and vitality of local economies, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has much to say about the government’s levelling up white paper. Crucially, we believe that the document falls far short of the six tests we set ahead of its release. 

Firstly, on its purpose. Levelling up is, at long last, evolving from a catchy electoral slogan and we now have an emerging basket of indicators for success. But it’s not yet clear how these national ambitions will translate into local delivery which supports opportunities for everyone. There is nothing in the indicators about addressing wealth inequality or poverty, for example. 

Secondly, money. Analysis released as the government launched its white paper shows that previously announced levelling up funding is going to the wrong places, with local and combined authorities having to complete endless application forms to Westminster. Further clarity is needed on how funds will be allocated going forward to ensure that the poorest and most deprived areas are given priority.

Thirdly, on jobs. The ambition set out in the white paper to increase pay, employment and productivity fails to recognise the urgent need to protect the lowest paid and most vulnerable in our jobs markets. Previous government interventions here – such as freeports – have done little to deliver decent jobs to the local people who need them the most. 

Fourthly, ownership. To deliver on its promises, levelling up must enable business growth that supports local forms of enterprise, with ownership structures that retain wealth and opportunity for the benefit of local people. Continuing to enable big business to extract money from communities will only continue to drive down living standards and life expectancy rather than helping people to live good lives.

Fifth, devolution. The introduction of new mayoralties is welcome but the success of new devolution arrangements will only be as good as the foundations upon which they are built. Powers and freedoms remain limited to those which enable the attraction and retention of investment, typically from larger global investors. 

Finally, local government. The white paper, yet again, fails to acknowledge the hard graft of local authorities in supporting local economies that work for their places. The government must prioritise a clear and stable settlement for local government finance going forward, so as to rebuild the basic foundations for levelling up – including decent public health, social services and planning.

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 – and that is an economic system which fails to give people a stake in their local place through, for example, decent work, housing and transport. This inequality, made worse by the pandemic, is what is driving down living standards and life expectancy rather than helping people to live good lives. 

In our opinion, the government’s 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.

Sarah Longlands is the chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies.