The Levelling Up White Paper can be a blueprint for success for the North

17.02.22

With the dust settled after its long awaited launch, Arcadis’ Northern Cities Executive, Richard Bonner takes a closer look at the Levelling Up White Paper and the key elements that will need to be embraced across the North if it is to be a success. 

When the Government released its much anticipated Levelling Up White Paper a few weeks ago, the immediate reaction from businesses across the North was mixed. Most welcomed the analysis and the 12 missions of the White Paper as positive steps but questioned the overall lack of new funding and clear strategy for delivering on the aspirations. But with a few weeks to properly digest this lengthy document, there is undoubtedly much in it to like and for the industry to put its full support behind. With Secretary of State Michael Gove making clear his own commitment to the cause at last week’s Convention of the North, there is a growing feeling that at long last, all of the parties involved in the task of Levelling Up are aligned on the scale and collaboration needed over the next decade.

The renewed devolution agenda

One of the things we were most pleased to see was the re-commitment to extending devolution and recognising the opportunities it presents for cities and communities throughout the north. This will be essential in equipping local areas to work across their stakeholders and with their citizens and continue to shape solutions that accelerate economic growth, transport links, skills and life chances. The messaging on further devolution was encouraging and, of course, its pleasing to see it actually happening, with the next local deals coming forward for Durham, Hull & East Yorkshire, as well as trailblazing developments to accelerate and further extend powers for Greater Manchester. Add to this the ongoing discussions with York and North Yorkshire and potential expansion of the North East Combined Authority and the prospects for greater local powers look a lot more encouraging than they did 12 months ago, with no sign of things slowing down. From that perspective this is the first tangible steps of Levelling Up in action. A good next step would be to see smaller towns and urban areas being picked up by the newly proposed county deals and further detail on the powers and remit of the new Levelling Up Council.

Also welcome is the strengthening of local devolution powers and responsibilities to develop programmes that suit local needs. There is a golden thread running through the Levelling Up White Paper addressing the issues of skills and educational attainment. This is vitally important to accelerate the transformation of economies, but also support the transition of skills to deliver net zero carbon reduction in our city regions. Here we need systematic approaches that can develop the complex programmes that will be required across energy networks, transport systems, industry, housing and buildings.

Funding is out there, getting it to the right places is key

One of the largest criticisms aimed at the White Paper has been the lack of new funding and whilst big new funding announcements would have of course been welcome, the more pressing concern for most northern cities and towns will be how do we access the myriad of funding pots that have been announced for the 2022-25 spending period that have now been brought under the banner of Levelling Up.

There is no shortage of funding programmes out there and the White Paper’s focus on channelling this funding into key transformative projects will be crucial for the economic growth of the North’s key towns and cities. This builds off the work Arcadis has been doing to support a number of northern towns in securing Future High Street and Levelling Up Funds to support wider regeneration and renewal programmes. A further emphasis towards the High Street Task Force will bring added momentum, and should be directed to attracting private sector investment to sit alongside the public sector seed funding.

Arcadis has long recognised that in places like Manchester, building strong alignment between the city region and Government departments is key to ensuring clarity of purpose and alignment on resources, funding and capability. The White Paper recognises that further value can be created in aligning Government departments towards a much more strategic approach and the Levelling Up missions should make working with (and within) the regions much more efficient and effective.

The key to successfully supporting our Northern cities to genuinely accelerate economic and social renewal and progress is in more than just announcements, it is about strong collective alignment. This is where Gove’s comments at the Convention of the North about building effective partnerships between the centre and the regions, as well as across the political divide, were especially encouraging as a continued commitment to address the intrinsic regional rivalries that have historically stymied growth.

Richard Bonner, City Executive for the North at Arcadis

R&D and the importance of clusters

The decision to place Research and Development at the heart of the Levelling Up plans should also be welcomed. The Northern cities have long recognised that aligning our universities and R&D capabilities to our key economic clusters is vital to align resources, funding streams and capability. As an example, Arcadis’ work with the University of Manchester in delivering the Graphene research and industrialisation facilities (GEIC), demonstrates how taking research and innovation and applying a laser focus on commercialising the benefits can contribute towards creating jobs, and growing productivity. 

National Graphene Institute, The University of Manchester

It’s clear this government focus also aligns to the wider clustering between universities and NHS Trusts in cities like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. The creation of these centres of excellence are catalysing wider community regeneration and benefits, helping to address local issues on social inequality, digital exclusion and access to good quality local jobs. It’s also fantastic to see that Greater Manchester will be securing additional support in developing new Innovation Accelerators. Building on these early successes will create a strong platform for further funding and growth down the line.

Housing and Infrastructure

Across the Northern cities, accelerating the delivery of housing to match the needs of our communities is vital, and it’s pleasing that a number of measures identified in the White Paper are targeted towards accelerating brownfield development and housing delivery. In particular, the realignment of the UK Local Government Pensions scheme, breaking the 80/20 rules on government funding allocations, and generally improving the private rental sector towards meeting the Decent Homes Standards have the potential to unlock significant numbers of new homes.

But the final part of the puzzle is tying all this together with effective transport links. The ambition to create transport settlements and devolution deals to create more ‘London Style’ transport networks, as well as using the recently announced City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements in cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, will be essential to supporting the connectivity of our citizens and growing skilled jobs. 

Arcadis’ work in connectivity, in city regions such as Liverpool with Mersey Travel, and in Greater Manchester with TfGM, and more generally our involvement with Network Rail on aspects of the Trans Pennine Upgrade, recognises the scale of the challenge ahead. Working with stakeholders to create clear programmes of delivery will be vital to bring these investment programmes forward efficiently and at speed. 

Overall, the overarching ambitions of the Levelling Up White Paper and the direction and support towards our great Northern cities and towns are very welcome. But, as a small note of caution, we must also recognise that the well-being of UKPLC is underpinned by the overall economic performance of all regions of the UK, and we want to ensure that support and funding does not slow down economic growth in London and the South East for example. 

Similarly, given the inherently political nature of levelling up, it’s clear that keeping up the momentum could be challenging should there be a change in administration in the coming months. Therefore, continued development and dialogue with the Government will also be essential to ensure any remaining questions around delivery are resolved. However, we’re encouraged that, if Gove’s comments this week are anything to go by, it certainly seems the White Paper won’t just be something that is published and forgotten, but a genuine set of guiding principles for the North to coalesce around as we get on with the task of Levelling Up.

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