Rachel Wolf: Tests for the delivery of levelling up, and levers with which to deliver it

10 May

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

The Conservatives have won more stunning victories. Why?

First, the approach that drove the 2019 victory continues to deliver.  Second, vaccines and furlough have rewarded sitting governments: they have demonstrated competence, agility, and a willingness to spend.

The next great test won’t come for a while. Boris Johnson is Merrie England: he is the perfect leader for our summer of freedom. The economy will temporarily boom. Furlough won’t be withdrawn until September. Provided it stops raining, everyone should feel good.

But the Government will be acutely conscious that the next six months is also the last window for policies that can deliver by 2024. They will also know that, by Christmas, any lingering effects of what my partner and ConservativeHome columnist James calls ‘furlough morphine’ will have worn off. Some economic scarring is likely.

In other words, ‘levelling up’ now needs to get real. This is clearly the plan in the next few months, starting with the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, and then leading to the Levelling Up paper.

Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan. It has never done very well in our focus groups – people find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating. They don’t think they’re ‘levelled down’, they think they’re ignored. Equally, they find the idea that in four years they’re suddenly going to become London and the South East bizarre – it’s not what they want, and they don’t think it’s credible.

But the danger of ‘levelling up’ is not that it confuses voters, but that it confuses policy. Too many seem to equate it with transforming regional productivity, affecting every town in provincial England and Wales, within a Parliament. Obviously if that’s what voters wanted, they would be disappointed.

Of course regional productivity and innovation are vital, and longer term work should begin. But there are also shorter-term gains. Here are some important ones, some obvious levers, and ways to measure progress.

The high street test.

People care deeply about where they live. They ‘measure’ decline by their town or city centre. Here’s what you hear time and time again: shops boarded up; graffiti on the cenotaph; drug addicts; no monthly market; no decent playground.

In other words, it’s depressing to be in, feels mildly unsafe, and there’s nothing to do.

  • Levers: Business rates; soft infrastructure (local museums, libraries, playgrounds); events including markets and protecting green spaces; incentives for lower margin, often civic enterprises from soft play to youth clubs to sports. Decent bus services. Core public services in the town centre.

It is crucial that ‘economic investments’ (many of dubious effectiveness) do not trump these. Yes, it becomes easier to sustain this kind of infrastructure when people are wealthier. But it is worth remembering that many of these things existed when people were much, much poorer.

  • Tests: vacancy rates. Footfall. Number of events. And, of course, what people tell you about their town.

The safety test

Under-reporting of crime is a big problem, and there is reason to believe it disproportionately affects the Red Wall. Burglary, shoplifting and vandalism are particular problems.

Fraud, too, is a national problem with unequal consequences. Pensioners in Red Wall seats who may own their own homes but have very modest savings and no private income are particularly exposed to losing their life savings. Meanwhile, specific estates suffer from low police presence, and deprived coastal communities and small towns are the targets of County Lines.

In other words, crime is a particular issue in particular ways in these places.

  • Levers: the extra police will help. We also need to change the way in which Home Office funding is allocated and put more emphasis on localised funds like the Safer Streets Funds (which pays for things people want like CCTV). We need a massive, revived focus on fraud – it is getting insufficient airtime and attention.
  • Tests: the obvious source is surveyed crime, but the government also needs better ways to measure crime than annual face to face interviews,

The Opportunity Test 1: Skills and Jobs. 

Training and apprenticeships are a huge priority for working class people. They want local training opportunities – ideally leading to local jobs. We know there’s huge untapped demand for technical level skills in the labour market, and that many adults want to retrain. It remains one of the great challenges of our system.

  • Levers: the Queen’s Speech will create a proper lifetime learning entitlement. Now it needs more funding and less bureaucracy (which is already blighting other skills entitlements and apprenticeships).

On jobs, big changes will be long-term. As well as incentives for private sector investment, the public sector is an opportunity. People want trained people to stay or return home. A start – and one of the most popular things universities can support – would be incentivising public sector graduates (like teachers, nurses, and doctors) to stay in areas where recruitment is a challenge.

  • Tests: number of adults in retraining. Reduction in skills shortages in ‘technical’ roles. I’d include reduced reliance on foreign skilled labour in specific areas (such as parts of construction, who are presumably going to see investment, and therefore job opportunities through net zero and transport).

The Opportunity Test 2: Schools

Schools perform less well in many Conservative target areas. In the past, I would have said this was a moral imperative, but not an electoral one – school quality wasn’t a big vote winner. But I think there’s now greater desire from parents (and we’ll be publishing a report with the Centre for Policy Studies on this in the near future). They are more aware of how their children are doing, how far behind some of them are, and how differently schools responded to the pandemic.

  • Levers: incentives for teachers to go to underperforming areas. Renewed focus on academies and free schools. Ofsted inspections with a focus on standards. Continuing the drive on behaviour. There should also be new focus on the most gifted through programmes in schools and more academically selective sixth forms.
  • Test: Ofsted ratings (including number of failing schools); percentage getting five good GCSEs in core subjects (called the EBACC).

Finally, an overall measure: retention of people and inward migration – in other words, do people want to stay and move to the towns of England? It is implausible that this will transform in a few years, but you might start to see a little movement towards the end of the Parliament (and post-Covid home working will accelerate this effect if places are nice to live in).

You will no doubt have issue with many (if not all) of these levers and measures. There are some omissions (most obviously health). But my point is that it is possible to generate and measure progress within a few years. The job won’t be done, but people will see the path. That shouldn’t diminish the importance of the longer-term, even harder job of thinking through regional growth and productivity. But if you don’t get these areas right, Johnson and the Conservatives won’t be given permission to carry on.

Alison Cork: Entrepreneurs can lead Britain’s recovery if we help them

23 Aug

Alison Cork is an entrepreneur, Ambassador to the British Library Business & IP Centres and founder of not for profit Make it Your Business

Faced with mounting job losses and economic stagnation, we are at a defining moment in our nation’s history.

As a lifelong entrepreneur, I believe this is also a moment of opportunity, when Britain should become a nation that champions people to start a business. Entrepreneurs are the job creators of the future, and we are going to need them.

Whilst Covid has triggered the economic challenges which have resulted in job losses, people are now much more attuned to the idea of working independently. As family dynamics shift there will possibly be an increase in the number of women wanting to work.

Whole industries such as retail and hospitality are redefining how they operate. In many ways, Covid has created a perfect catalyst to encourage self-employment as a viable alternative for people who might otherwise have stuck with traditional employment or role models.

The challenge is how we normalise entrepreneurship. Historically we have tended to view my breed as outliers, and it is true that entrepreneurs are a bit different in the way we think, view risk and spot opportunities. What we need to do now is deliver the correct framework to support that mindset, and to understand what entrepreneurship really means.

So often we focus on the huge businesses, the ‘unicorns’ of our economy. But I’m talking about the ‘acorns’ of our economy, kitchen table businesses which may only generate modest sums, but which make a material difference to the economic independence and self-respect of that person or family unit. Businesses which mean those people are not dependent upon state intervention. Margaret Thatcher got it. The daughter of a grocer, she was the poster girl of self-determination, and inspired people like me to go out and give it a shot.

Encouragingly, our current government has already made a very important contribution to this initiative. In the pre-Covid budget there was a £13 million grant to continue to roll out the British Library Business & IP Centre Network. Originated in London, the BIPC is a business advice and information service which anyone can access free of charge. Spanning market intel reports, IP advice, workshops and even one-on-one mentoring, the BIPC has an impressive track record of success, with businesses that use the resource four times more likely to succeed than those which don’t. It also returns almost £7 into the economy for every £1 of public money spent on delivering the service.

The plan is to use central and local libraries to create a hub-and-spoke model of Business & IP centres around the UK. A brand of trust, an existing physical infrastructure, an important civic building often located on or near the high street and heart of the community, libraries are the perfect impartial and non-judgemental environment from which to support would-be entrepreneurs.

In terms of levelling up, library BIPC’s can reach the parts of the country that other initiatives have never been able to reach. They also have a strong track record in encouraging women and BAME-owned businesses, both currently under-represented. Between now and 2030, we estimate the BIPC service will help establish over 150,000 new businesses, contributing over £1 billion to the economy. That’s job creation.

But if we are truly to become a nation that embraces small business, we need to look further back in the entrepreneurial life cycle, to education. Starting a business and understanding the many skill sets needed to succeed in self-employment should be part of the school curriculum. Perhaps it should even be built into our apprenticeships programme? Moreover, the recent furore over A Level results could ultimately impact on how students view career options, leading to self-employment as a more normal choice for school leavers.

Which brings me back to Margaret Thatcher. There are, of course, pieces of the self-employed jigsaw missing, and funding is one of them. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic you are about starting a business, personal financial risk is the factor most likely to deter someone from going it alone. So, we might do well to revisit a version of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by her in 1981.

In a nutshell, the EAS paid a sum of money monthly to anyone unemployed who wanted to start a business. You had to show some savings and a business plan, but there was no vetting of the idea itself, just a no-strings opportunity to try something out and create a job or jobs. ‘What could possibly go wrong?’,I hear you say. But research showed that it created 325,000 jobs and 18 months after signing up, 65 per cent of recipients were still in business, and 25 per cent of them were under 25. Perhaps the library business centres could also administer these grants.

In terms of business-friendly legislation, let’s also look at employment law, to facilitate hiring and firing without fear of unreasonable reprisal; maternity pay that doesn’t disadvantage the self-employed; legislation around business coaches and advice – currently not subject to regulation or insurance requirements – and greater rigour around collection of bad debts and dealing with fraud.

The good news is that we have a government taking steps to deliver on the levelling up promise of the election manifesto. The library Business Centre network is an important part of the delivery of that promise. What we need now is a comprehensive suite of services to be the foundation stone of a truly authentic entrepreneurial culture.