Why successive Conservative attempts to level up have failed

The government’s levelling-up agenda has to avoid the pitfalls of the past by putting local communities front and centre

March 02, 2022
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The Beatles’ yellow submarine at Liverpool’s garden festival in 1984. The legacy of Thatcher’s original National Garden Festivals initiative has been mixed. Image: Rob Cole Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

The Achilles’ heel of successive government attempts to “level-up” has arguably been their addiction to orthodox macro-economic approaches to growth. But Boris Johnson pledged to get it right, and to answer the pleas of the forgotten people. The levelling-up white paper opens promisingly with the prime minister calling out his predecessors for being “content to focus instead on the big picture of national growth.” But is “Levelling-up the United Kingdom” a genuine break with the Conservative governments of the past?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fifth and final “National Garden Festival.” Modelled on the German postwar regeneration programme of Bundesgartenschau, the National Garden Festivals were an attempt by the Thatcher governments of the 1980s to regenerate derelict post-industrial cities. At a combined cost of over £200m, the festivals’ initiative rested on the belief that by making land ready for development and increasing tourism, investment and regeneration would follow. Although popular—attracting an average of three million visitors each—their regenerative legacy is questionable. Indeed, almost 40 years since it opened its gates, the first festival site in Liverpool is once again the focus of a multi-million-pound regeneration programme.

Under John Major’s premiership the Conservative government set out to tackle unemployment, crime, poor health and education in the UK’s most deprived areas with the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB). Launched in 1994, the SRB allocated £8.2bn to a range of projects from retraining older workers to subsidising commercial developments. The underlying theory was that if the government provided appropriately skilled workers and developed suitable commercial premises, businesses would move in and provide opportunities for local people.

However, research by Henry Overman “found no evidence that these jobs went to local people, or improved the employment outcomes of local residents,” and that “instead of viewing these projects as engines for economic growth… we could look at their potential to yield valuable quality of life improvements for residents.” This is an area of research we have examined extensively in our work in east London. By recruiting and training teams of local residents we are able to incorporate their local knowledge into our research. These “Citizen Social Scientists” designed the research, collected the data and interpreted the findings to create a local prosperity index that measures prosperity in terms of affordable and good quality housing, safety, strong social networks and a sense of social and economic inclusion.  Not the number of housing units built, or jobs created.

With David Cameron’s 2015 government came another attempt at improving “the life chances of the most disadvantaged.” Despite the prime minister labelling it a “blitz on sink estates,” the eventual Estate Regeneration Strategy emphasised the importance of resident engagement in understanding the issues and opportunities within communities to improving life chances. However, it quickly became focused on building programmes to transform run-down neighbourhoods and provide new homes in high-demand areas. By 2017, residents in those areas were increasingly concerned that a policy to improve their housing conditions was now a programme of replacing socially rented estates with denser developments of affordable and luxury flats, squeezing out low-income households.

“Levelling-up the United Kingdom” seeks to draw lessons from the past, concluding that there is no single explanation for past failure, but a combination of factors: a lack of longevity and policy; poor policy and delivery coordination; insufficient local empowerment; weak evidence, monitoring and evaluation; and deficiencies in transparency and accountability.

In response the white paper identifies six forms of capital that must be invested in communities in order to successfully “level them up.” These are:

    1. Physical capital—funding infrastructure and housing.
    2. Human capital—investing in health, education and training
    3. Intangible capital—nurturing and encouraging creativity and innovation
    4. Financial capital—facilitating the financing of companies to encourage them to establish businesses in left-behind communities.
    5. Social capital—tackling crime and alienation
    6. Institutional capital—devolving decisionmaking from the centre and strengthening local government

The first four of these have been present in previous approaches,whereas the final two have been largely absent. At the IGP we fundamentally believe social capital—placing citizens and communities at the centre of efforts to reimagine prosperity—should be the starting point for levelling-up.

The white paper is not without hope on this point. It promises a new “Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships,” claiming this will make it easier for local people and community groups to identify and set local priorities while committing government to piloting new models for community partnership.

The IGP has already piloted a new approach to do just that. The London Prosperity Index describes what prosperity means to people living and working in London. It includes economic matters, like household income, but places them in relation to the other things that people say matter to them: regular and good quality work; affordable and good quality housing in a safe neighbourhood; access to low or no cost transport, child and social care; and being part of the future.

The greatest flaw of the white paper is that it does not have the courage of its convictions on social capital. Instead of trusting social capital to identify and generate solutions it insists that housing, skills, patents and finance are already integral parts of the solution. They might well be. But given that they have been central to every previous failed approach, would not the modern-day Medici effect that Gove seeks have been better facilitated by allowing people with different experiences to collaborate and define their prosperity? Surely that is the 21st century renaissance we should aspire to.