Levelling up white paper is a missed opportunity for a more rounded policy

Areas like Middlesbrough need the government's levelling up funding, but will they get it?

The chair of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering’s places group and UK cities director at Arcadis, Peter Hogg, analyses the government’s levelling up white paper, which was released today.

The timing of the levelling up white paper, the fact that it is a marquee Government policy, along with recent events in Westminster, make it difficult to separate the announcement from the political noise. With this in mind, we should remember that no matter what persuasions or party loyalty are in play, there is broad consensus on the principles and aspirations for levelling up across the political spectrum.

While there may be disagreements on approach - and many will be quick to point out that the current government has been stronger on rhetoric than delivery to date - there can be no argument that we need to spread opportunity across the UK, especially to those communities which have historically been “left behind”.

ACE’s own levelling up report, Levelling Up: Five Principals for Success, released last November, outlined a practical framework for government at all levels to deliver political aspirations around levelling up. Today’s white paper goes some way to enabling this, but we still feel it is a missed opportunity for a more rounded strategy which allows all local communities to truly flourish.

While the “12 national missions” are welcome to drive activity and ensure spending remains both targeted and on track, they are nothing without the properly structured long-term financing behind them to realise these political ambitions.

The delivery of the white paper itself demonstrates some of the issues at hand. By focusing on the investment in 20 “winning” cities, we are continuing a culture of “winners” and “losers” when we should be focused on spreading opportunity across the UK more equally for all left-behind communities in urban, post-industrial, coastal or rural locations.

Our ACE report recommended replacing competition and fractured ring-fenced funds with consolidated longer-term strategic funding for local government. This would lead to a joined-up approach which will be vital if we are to meet the significant challenges of building a more prosperous, healthy and productive communities across the UK, while delivering a net zero built environment.

There are other concerns too with the current strategy. The National Audit Office have shared an analysis to coincide with the white paper’s launch today which argues that the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund and £3.2bn Towns Fund “don’t [currently] drive significant growth”. Our proposed approach would enable better joined-up impactful investment strategies to emerge working towards achieving the 12 missions while meeting our net zero obligations.

Regional levelling up directors are an interesting concept in bridging the gap between central and local government – and will no doubt encourage local authorities to share best-practice – but I believe that this resource could have been better directed at smaller local authorities that often lack the in-house planning, placemaking and design expertise to put forward viable and impactful regeneration projects.

It is here that ACE members have a key role to play – with our experience and expertise working at the centre of planning, placemaking, regeneration, and as the managers of our built environment, we can truly claim to be the delivery partner of choice for any local authority seeking to “level up”. We just need to make sure that they are fully empowered financially to do so.

Peter Hogg is chair of the ACE places group and UK cities director at Arcadis.