Can a bottom-up approach really level up the country?

By Elena Campbell

Since Boris Johnson’s first speech as Prime Minister on 24 July 2019, the need to address regional inequalities across the UK has been pushed to the top of the national policy agenda. In the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election-winning manifesto, the party said its focus would be ‘levelling up’ every part of the UK. The term has since become a key slogan for the Johnson government, was a key tenet of the Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister now has a ‘levelling up adviser’, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has unveiled a £4.8bn ‘levelling up fund’. On 15 July 2021, Boris Johnson gave a speech outlining his vision to level up the UK, in which he sees the need for ‘catalytic role for government’. The Chancellor’s recent Budget also sought to promote policies connected to levelling up, reportedly telling colleagues that the “Levelling Up agenda would be the golden thread that runs through this Spending Review and Budget". Rishi Sunak’s speech included a flurry of funding announcements such as the allocation of the first round of the levelling up fund with £1.7 billion of local investment in local areas.

The issues also featured prominently at the recent Conservative Party Conference through Michael Gove, the newly appointed Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Gove’s Conference speech provided a small step in the direction of reaching a levelling up definition, finally, breaking down the agenda into four parts: empower local leaders and communities; raise living standards; spread opportunity and improve public services; give people the resources necessary to enhance the pride they feel in the place they live. As such, it is surely an oversight that Gove’s department opted to remove ‘local government’ from their title altogether.

The slightly paradoxical focus on the centralised role of government in addressing regional inequalities in the UK therefore begs the question of what role regional authorities can play in delivering the levelling up agenda. This is highlighted by the delivery of effective devolved power, demonstrated in part through the examples of elected mayors in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. These examples provide valuable lessons for central government about how to unlock success at a regional and local level.

Regional Mayors call for greater devolution

Although the ‘levelling-up’ message is now synonymous with the current Conservative government, the policy debate around how to practically devolve power away from Westminster is not new. It came to legislative fruition when the Coalition Government introduced the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act in 2016, though the policy debate is probably older still. Yet, following this legislation in 2017, England’s then seven metro mayors – for London, West Midlands, West of England, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, Greater Manchester and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough – joined forces to call on the government to devolve power at a faster rate. They called for further devolved control over public services, including transport, skills, and apprenticeships as well as fiscal devolution to minimise reliance on government grants.

Like most elected representatives, Metro Mayors are judged on focused delivery in their area, and in this case, their contribution to the devolution process. The then Mayor of the West of England, Tim Bowles, saw a role for central government in enabling Metro Mayors to make decisions. This view was also supported from the bottom-up, with constituent councils taking a pragmatic approach to new regional powers. In April 2017, just before the establishment of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), the British Academy hosted a stakeholder engagement event, involving a group of academics, local government representatives, Whitehall officials and trade unionists to discuss the opportunities and challenges for devolution in the region. Constituent councils in the West of England accepted the introduction of a Mayor both to gain the extra budgets and powers on offer at present, but also with a view to the future. As one local authority figure put it, any further devolution would likely come down the mayoral route, so without local cooperation, areas risk being left behind. The cooperation of local leaders with the regional mayor who can negotiate with central government means that devolution to and delivery in each area is representative of local understanding and nuances. Helpfully, successful local delivery can be bipartisan and there is plenty of evidence for both sides of the spectrum to look more seriously at the benefits it can bring.

Greater Manchester Transport Strategy

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) was the first of the now seven combined authorities to be created in 2011. Following a series of devolution deals agreed between the government and the GMCA, the powers given to the GMCA include a consolidated, multi-year transport budget. Transport infrastructure is critical and done right, it can help to boost the productivity of an area, connecting talent pool with opportunity. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has used this power to develop a Greater Manchester Transport Strategy 2040. The strategy, updated in January 2021, will complement the GMCA’s target to be net zero carbon by 2038 to offer a long-term policy framework for a world class integrated transport network that supports sustainable economic growth in the city-region. Buses in Greater Manchester are being brought under local control and will be run by the GMCA in the biggest change to public transport in the city-region in over 30 years.

The move is backed by nine out of ten local authorities in Greater Manchester and received over 80% support through a series of public and stakeholder consultations. Councils, businesses, and residents think this will increase connectivity, sustainable transport and levels of investment from outside the region. Subsequent to the publication of the GMCA’s strategy, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced new funding for investment in local transport network in the form of a new City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS). The new fund stems from the announcement DfT made in 2019 that the eight eligible English city regions would receive £4.2 billion of additional funding for local transport networks. The CRSTS sits alongside other funding streams such as the £4.8 billion levelling up fund, still available to the eight city regions.

Indeed, while the GMCA offers a good example of devolved power delivering new and popular policy locally, such instances can also become testbeds for central government in assessing what works well to then encourage rollout elsewhere. As it stands, due to the success of this project, central government funding can be used by the other combined authorities to replicate a similar transport model like the GMCA to boost mobility and productivity in each area. The benefits for all parties are clear and there is no reason why such an approach should not go across different policy areas.

West Midlands Regional Skills Plan

Taking another issue and area, the West Midlands skills agreement 2018 sets out the way the Government would work with the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) to address skills challenges in the region. The agreement outlines the delivery of the WMCA’s Skills Plan with explicit aims to boost productivity and earning power for all. One element of the plan, the ‘Apprenticeship Ambition’ involved the establishment of a regional Apprenticeship and Technical Education Taskforce in partnership with the Department for Education (DfE). As a result, the Government committed to supporting the WMCA with its work to drive up apprenticeship starts with small and medium-sized (SME) employers in high priority areas.

An example of this is the Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Fund, a national scheme adopted across the country by a range of combined and local authorities such as the WMCA. The scheme enables large employers to pledge their unspent levy to fund the training of apprentices at SMEs. In the West Midlands, a total of £21m has now been pledged to the scheme and to date and 1,840 apprentices at 613 SMEs have benefited from the fund over the past two years. The scheme has been successful for several reasons, the most significant being collaboration and support from big businesses and local councils in the region, including Amazon, express parcel delivery firm DPD, rail company Cross Country, and Sandwell and City of Wolverhampton Councils, to name a few.

The West Midland’s focus on skills forms a significant part of the West Midlands Local Industrial Strategy, developed locally and agreed with the government. The Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Fund and the WMCA’s skills plan, which provides a significant contribution to the delivery of the UK’s national Industrial Strategy, is a perfect example of a national approach tailored with the strong input of local leadership to target a specific aim of increasing apprenticeship starts with SME employers in high priority areas delivering successful results.

Levelling up in partnership

The creation of combined authorities, and the range of agreements between central and regional powers, highlights the symbiotic relationship between the two in the levelling up policy arena. As demonstrated through the GMCA and WMCA examples, levelling up is a process pertaining to both central and regional government, albeit with different and important roles to play. A national policy agenda and speeches by the Prime Minister cannot drive regional, diverse, and place-based progress across the country alone. Instead, it must work in partnership with those on the ground who understand the issue, recognise how it should be tackled and equally, take feedback on how success in one area can be rolled out in other areas. For levelling-up to really work, we must strike this balance.

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