Levelling up white paper: a valuable start that falls short of its ambition

The brains behind the government’s flagship policy have produced a worthwhile but limited policy document

February 04, 2022
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Have Michael Gove and his co-authors turned a slogan into a strategy? Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Michael Gove, Neil O’Brien and Andy Haldane have been described as a Whitehall supergroup—three of the best policy brains in the country, brought together to turn the levelling up election slogan into a serious policy agenda. This week’s white paper was their first album, long awaited and groaning under the pressure of expectation. So was the eventual paper a revolutionary classic, or underwhelming and ultimately forgettable?

First, a round-up of what it clearly is and is not. It’s not a plan with policies and funding that will truly rebalance the UK or transform the prospects of those who have been shut out of prosperity for so long. It’s also not a white paper that will deliver large-scale, tangible improvements by the next election. However, it does move us on in some important ways.

Resisting the temptation to claim this will fix geographical inequality in the next few years is actually a good start. Instead, the authors clearly say this is a deep-seated problem, which requires long-term, systemic action. It also sets out a convincing diagnosis of the problem and its drivers. Thinking in terms of Cambridge economist Diane Coyle’s “six capitals”—physical, intangible (such as data), social, institutional, financial and human—has enabled a new emphasis on things like relationships within communities, the role of civil society and local institutional capacity. The paper has a strong sense of history. Not just the slightly odd discussion of 7,000 years of cities and the Medici’s Renaissance Florence, but also a welcome willingness to draw on more recent history and revive mechanisms like the old public service agreements, New Labour’s tool to hold government departments to account for delivering Tony Blair’s objectives.

The new version of public service agreements are the 12 missions, which cover broadly the right territory, from pay to skills, health and local leadership. It’s particularly welcome to see outcomes like wellbeing and health put on an equal footing with traditional measures like pay and productivity—potentially a gamechanger if followed through.

However, the missions are very variable in detail and quality. Some are wildly over-optimistic—raising the UK’s healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 and having 90 per cent of primary school children at the expected level in reading, writing and maths by 2030 are far beyond what any expert would view as realistic. Others are disappointingly timid—the goal of having 200,000 more people training annually would only reverse a quarter of the fall in adult learning since 2010. And some are positive but too vague—moving local public transport connectivity across the country “significantly closer” to the standards of London, 5G coverage for “the majority of the population.” But the missions are a good starting point and can be refined and made more specific. Tightening up the goals and driving action will be helped by a commendably strong focus on improving both the data available (especially in weak areas such as measuring wellbeing and pride in place) and its accessibility to policymakers and outsiders. 

The “Policy Programme” section of the report was always likely to be underpowered, given the lack of new money. The supergroup clearly worked hard to find policies to include and pots of money to repurpose, and there is a decent attempt to demonstrate how multiple funding streams can be directed to a cross-government mission, from R&D to the Arts Council.

Some of the strongest policies are in housing, where the authors have most control: ending section 21 “no-fault evictions,” introducing a legally binding Decent Homes Standard in the private rented sector, moving towards a National Landlord Register and a promise of more money for social housing (although no indication of how much). In other areas, the policy prescriptions look rushed, gimmicky and misdirected, such as the announcement of 55 “Education Investment Areas.” In many areas, the document simply signposts to future papers. In some areas that’s good, such as the forthcoming Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships, which can now be designed in partnership with civil society organisations rather than handed down by civil servants. But others are deeply frustrating: we still don’t know how the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will be allocated.

There are also some odd omissions. Childcare isn’t mentioned despite being crucial for parents trying to get into work. (Not for the first time I wonder how many women and single parents were at the table when some of these choices were made). The paper is silent on benefits policy and the long-promised employment bill to strengthen the rights of workers at the bottom of the labour market. The living standards mission does not include a measure of living standards, vital if new jobs and skills are to translate into less poverty and better prospects. Without a direct measure to ensure that happens, many of the missions could be pursued without touching the central problem of more and more people being pulled into poverty, debt and destitution.

As expected, the funding just isn’t there to drive the level of change that’s required. The money available through the Shared Prosperity and Levelling Up funds is significantly less than was available for local growth under David Cameron and Theresa May. Many departments still have less money than in 2010, while being asked to deliver much more. Local government funding fell by £10bn (17 per cent) in the decade leading up to the pandemic; school spending per pupil will stay below its 2009-2010 level until 2024-2025. In both cases poorer areas saw bigger hits to their funding. 

Devolving more power won’t fix that, but may be more significant for the long term. During the pandemic, the current metro mayors were frequently a thorn in the government’s side, leading many to expect it to back away from further devolution of power. The white paper does the opposite, at least within England. It sets out a framework of powers to be devolved, accelerates the process of establishing many more mayors and argues for “devolution deals” with counties as well as cities across England. Here, too, there is much more to do—the UK government is keeping a strong hand on the tiller in decisions such as how funding should be used. But this is a serious step forward, which will be hard for subsequent governments to undo.

Which brings us to the final blast from the past—the return of putting targets and annual reporting into legislation. One previous example was Labour’s child poverty targets, this time it’s the 12 missions. The goal is to tie this government and its successors into public commitments with transparent reporting, hoping that maintains their focus, stiffens their resolve and makes it too embarrassing to drop the agenda when the politics change or personnel are reshuffled. But the fate of the child poverty targets offers a salutary lesson. When the targets represented strong commitment from both the prime minister and the chancellor, backed with investment, they drove real action and impact. But as soon as this changed, legislated targets made little difference.

In some ways this is the biggest lesson from the white paper. The supergroup has done its best with the resources available to it. This paper charts a path that future governments may well continue along through changing political weather. But the impact on people’s lives will remain limited until they get greater backing from the record label bosses—both the prime minister and the chancellor.