In the 2019 election, the Conservative party committed itself to “levelling up” the country. At last, this week, the government published its plans. The stated intention is to reduce the glaring inequalities between areas and regions of the country by a cross government strategy. The strategy will be embodied in a new “Levelling up and Regeneration Bill” and supported by a series of 12 “missions” which they plan to achieve by 2030.
What has happened already?
This is not entirely new. Some relevant activity began some time ago with four funds worth in total £4.7 billion. Three: the Future High Streets Fund, the Community Renewal Fund and the Towns Fund, have been fully allocated. A fourth is a “Levelling up fund” which has already allocated £1.4bn with a further £1.8bn still to be announced.
In the Eastern Region 21 Councils received money from one or more of these funds. £264 million in total from the Towns Fund; £66 million from Levelling Up; £24 million from Future High Streets; and £23 million from Community Renewal.
It should also be noted that the overall scale of this funding is very similar to the funds allocated before Brexit for similar purposes through European regional funds.
Concerns about the progress to date
The Public Accounts Committee has expressed doubts about the coherence, objectives and management of the current funds. It seems that the new plan aims to avoid this. There was also criticism that, to get money, local communities had to bid against criteria decided by civil servants in Whitehall, rather than investment in what they thought most important locally.
Perhaps most seriously, it has been suggested that Ministers made decisions which gave money to marginal Conservative constituencies, rather than those areas with greatest need. There is certainly room to question the allocation. In the Eastern Region, Mid-Bedfordshire, the constituency of Culture Minister Nadine Dorries, which is in the 20% most affluent constituencies in the country, received £91 per head, while Tendring in Essex, the most deprived area of the Region, has received only £10 a head. Meanwhile, Essex County Council has recommended the allocation of levelling up funds to Braintree, a District which ranks nationally well below the national average for deprivation.
The twelve “missions”
The plans are built around twelve “missions”. In disadvantaged areas they propose to:
- Raise pay, employment and productivity
- Increase public investment in research and development outside the South East
- Bring public transport nationally closer to the standards of London
- Provide 5G broadband coverage for most of the country
- Raise levels of English and Maths in primary schools
- 200,000 more people completing high quality skills and training
- Narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy between areas
- Narrow the gap in wellbeing between areas
- Increase people’s satisfaction with their local town, community and culture
- Improve the quality of rented housing and of access to housing for first time buyers
- Reduce homicide, violence and neighbourhood crime
- Give a devolution deal to every area that wants it, with long term funding settlements
There is no doubt that this is an ambitious, and welcome, agenda. The idea of a long-term plan is admirable. But in our political system, no government can bind its successors, so they can’t promise anything further ahead. Voters have short memories, and inbuilt scepticism about political promises.
There is a powerful incentive for the government to achieve visible results, preferably in the next three years, before the election, whether or not the long term objectives are ever delivered. This increases pressure to do what can be done quickly, rather than what is most important. Furthermore, although the plan has bold intentions about local devolution of decision making, national politics will always try to micromanage from Whitehall, and reflect the interests of individual MPs.
Like many initiatives from the present government there are questions about whether the ambitions match the resources. There is no new money, and these plans are to be achieved by reallocating existing budgets. Certainly what they intend to spend is tiny, compared to the 50 percent cuts made in government funding to local councils since the Conservative austerity programme began in 2010.
The scale of this problem can be seen if we compare this with the levelling up task which Germany undertook after reunification, to bring the former East Germany up to the level of the former West. Although they have spent £71 billion a year for 24 years on this, the task is still not complete. It seems unlikely that the UK’s plans will make much difference.
Critics will also point to this government’s track record on grand promises. Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 were both big levelling up projects. Both were going to make major improvement in connections between northern cities and London. After a fanfare of launch publicity, the plans were later quietly abandoned, but only after a lot of money had been wasted on preparatory work.
More from East Anglia Bylines
What does this mean for the East of England
There are many ways of measuring deprivation. Perhaps the most relevant is the Index of Multiple Deprivation produced by the Office of National Statistics. This gives a score to each of 32,844 neighbourhoods, each of around 650 households, based on seven topics: average income, employment, health and education, crime, housing and environment. The resulting league table of deprivation shows where the greatest levelling up challenges lie.
Overall, the East of England is more prosperous than the rest of the UK (outside London). The ONS league table shows that 15 of the 40 local authorities in the Eastern Region have no areas, or only one, in the bottom 20 percent of the table.
However, 8 Local Authorities are in the bottom 30 percent of deprivation. Great Yarmouth is in the bottom 10 percent, while Peterborough and Tendring are in the bottom 20 percent, followed by Fenland, Ipswich, Kings Lynn, Luton and Norwich.
It is clear that any strategy for levelling up will need to focus on the communities in the bottom ten or twenty percent of the ranking.
We underperform on education
The ONS tables show scores for each of the seven topics. A striking feature is the poor performance of the region in education. Five of our Authorities are in the bottom 10 percent – Great Yarmouth, Tendring, Peterborough, Norwich and Ipswich – and five more in the bottom 20 percent, including Breckland and Castle Point, both of which score much higher on other measures. This suggests that the educational element of the levelling up plan will be especially relevant to us.
Where should the targets be?
Of the 32,844 neighbourhoods in the UK, 3,422 are in the Eastern Region. Of these, 135 are in the bottom 10% for overall deprivation, and 360 are in the bottom 20 percent.
Although this means that our overall level of deprivation is relatively low, there are some serious pockets of disadvantage. If levelling up is to mean anything, it will need to make a measurable impact on these. The table below shows the Councils with more than five areas (LSOAs) in the bottom 10 percent of the table.
|Council||No of areas in the bottom 10 percent nationally|
|King’s Lynn and West Norfolk||7|
Promises and reality?
The levelling up objective is welcome, and all parties will agree on most of the aims. The plans to introduce monitoring and reporting on progress are also welcome. However, this plan already begins with far fewer resources than it needs for those objectives. Furthermore, this government, and this Prime Minister, have a record of grand announcements of schemes which are later abandoned or seriously scaled down (like HS2, the tunnel to Northern Ireland and the London Garden Bridge). Will it go the same way, or will we just see some small local projects designed to cheer people up in marginal constituencies in time for the next election? In due course East Anglia Bylines will be reporting.