A couple of days after wall to wall coverage on Levelling Up following the release of the long awaited white paper and its like it never happened.
This cornerstone strategy for the Government has been side lined by the growing concerns among many households (and businesses) on how they are going to fare over the next ten months, not ten years. It’s not a light at the end of the tunnel that’s needed, it’s some reassurance that the lights aren’t about to be switched out.
Whilst there is much to be commended in both the ambition and detail of the White Paper, including the fact that not all places will level up evenly and at the same pace, the cost of living hike and the induced panic of it (even Covid can’t compete this week), is perhaps a stark pointer to the significant vulnerabilities that seeded the strategy in the first place.
The coverage was perplexing – and pointed to an oversimplification of the issue – it’s not just about North versus South. Eutopia’s Vista Index of place performance (which ranks major 108 towns and cities across the UK) does highlight in the ranking the challenges faced by Barnsley, Bolton and Gateshead but also Maidstone, Southend on Sea and Trowbridge. Northern towns don’t have a monopoly on poverty and deprivation, in fact the cost of living the South makes the gap between rich and poor even more acute.
The White Paper by contrast is overcomplicated, particularly from a metrics perspective and am sure will have local authorities scratching their heads – like many were after they weren’t successful in their applications for levelling up funds even though on paper they might have looked like a shoe in – Barnsley and Bolton again.
In fairness, measuring place performance and attractiveness can be a tricky business. And then there’s the rational and emotional side to place. The rational piece is driven by data. At the core, places need to be able to clearly see where they sit in comparison to other places – and that’s why the Government will never publish a place ranking index like Vista. They would be giving local Govt and swathes of the electorate a stick to be beaten with. Better then to stick with the data lake approach, let everyone jump in and swim around in circles wondering where they are heading.
And from an emotional perspective, the patronising view that people who live in what may be considered as some of the “worst” towns, need to rebuild pride in their area is again an oversimplification. Deprivation and social issues don’t always lead to community breakdown, or lack of pride - in some places it makes it stronger. Many of us know we don’t live in a “great” place, myself included, but it’s our place and we recognise living in it doesn’t devalue our human capital or spirt. Kenneth Branagh’s recent love story of Belfast highlights that the place we’re from shapes us for life, and we shape it – and it’s not a one-dimensional relationship. And we’ve seen other love stories of deindustrialised towns and cities – The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Brassed Off.
What is clear from the places I’m working with and the coverage this week is that local authorities and indeed residents all have a different view of what levelling up means to them and how to achieve it. And whilst local autonomy is to be applauded, it does need to all join up to achieve a national ambition and that is still very opaque. Turns out that translating a policy soundbite is a tough business. Take back control, (this week, anyone?)
And what chance have we at levelling up if we can’t afford to feed the meter?