A White Paper fit for Groundhog Day

February 2, 2022  

Have we been here before? Jessica Studdert on the Levelling Up white paper, and how laudable ambitions have amounted to a familiar dearth of real powers or policy coherence for local government.

The regional inequalities which mar our country have existed across centuries. They have been compounded after decades of neglect from a political centre that takes decisions at a remove from consequences, and years of austerity policy that has constrained the ability of public services to respond.

Overturning these inequalities was always going to be a tall order for a single policy document, even a 300-page one. No wonder it was a bit delayed. But the Levelling Up white paper’s emergence on Groundhog Day is revealing: much is familiar and one has a strong sense that we have been here before.

The ambition is of course laudable – for too long these regional inequalities have been priced into our national experience. In too many communities, people know they need to ‘get out to get on’. The analysis within the white paper, refreshingly for a government document, explicitly links these poor socio-economic outcomes to our over-centralised governance and identifies devolution as a route to level up.

And yet Whitehall is still the price maker here. The limits of the white paper reflect the limits of the establishment’s own willingness to let go. There are 12 clear national ‘levelling up missions’ by 2030 in areas like living standards and wellbeing, which if met would tangibly improve outcomes for many people. But the hardwiring that would be necessary to complete them does not follow – simply enshrining them in law without the necessary commitment to funding and delivery will not magic them into reality.

Unaligned levers

The missions do not transfer onto the devolution framework, which is entirely separate. If they did, this could have been an opportunity to guarantee the accountability and resource through which they could be achieved in practice. But they don’t. So, from the perspective of places themselves, the vast array of delivery levers that could achieve the missions will remain unaligned. Without the ability to draw together service, infrastructure and social investment into a coherent place-specific approach, the much-needed system shift towards prevention will remain out of reach.

One is left with a sense of lowest common denominator rather than radical governance shift to bring power closer to communities

Instead, the white paper is ultimately what all underwhelming strategy documents tend to be: a list of things. A list of things that were left on the table after the Whitehall departmental fiefdoms hashed it all out between them and once the Treasury had given it all a good shaking down.

Some things relating to transport, innovation, capital investment: great. But little on health, education or welfare – those big public service spending beasts of Whitehall whose policy matters so much for life chances but whose control is kept so firmly at SW1. So overall, one is left with a sense of lowest common denominator rather than radical governance shift to bring power closer to communities.

Scraps of funding and power

The echoes of Groundhog Day are strongest in the parts of the list relating to local government. Here is where the collective failure of imagination within our governing establishment is often the greatest, and the white paper continues the tradition of deploying the same old levers.

We have a series of funding pots sitting under certain investment priorities that local areas can compete between each other for: an increasingly common substitute for a simple commitment to fund areas sufficiently in the first place. There is a reheated devolution policy that offers scraps of funding and power in a series of transactional deals. And there is an underlying obsession with the structural form of local government over any serious regard for its many functions at the heart of communities.

It is easy to forget, when reading the document, that the last decade of austerity was devised by largely the same people at Westminster and Whitehall. Those in local government may have a sense of feeling rather gaslighted by the agenda set out, as if they hadn’t already been grappling with the consequences of inequality on a daily basis through their many statutory services and growth objectives.

Levelling up is here to stay

Having been defunded for years and forced to take tough decisions over discretionary services, here is that same government now creating a series of funds for things like youth services, high streets and culture. Having taken away the core council funding that supported these public goods in the first place, the government apparently now expects credit for giving it back.

There is certainly still space for the main political parties to up the ante and outdo each other on who will best level up into the 2020s

To genuinely level our country up requires sustained political commitment. Making it real will require a combination of national ambition and local initiative. It will take the work of decades to overturn a situation accumulated over decades.

One silver lining on this agenda would seem to be that it is at least here to stay. Levelling up was the promise on which the last election was won, and so it will be a key issue over which the next will be fought. There is certainly still space for the main political parties to up the ante and outdo each other on who will best level up into the 2020s.

This white paper should only be the opening gambit of a long-term project to redistribute power away from distant governing institutions and towards communities themselves, with all the social and economic benefit that can ensue.

This article was originally published in LGC.

Join our mailing list