Jonathan Werran: Levelling up. Is Gove poised to mimic his academies programme – and bypass local authorities?

2 Dec

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

In the well-reviewed recent popular anthropology book The Dawn of Everything, the authors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, posit that the “ultimate question of human history is not our equal access to material resources… but our equal capacity to contribute to decisions about how to live together”.

This, they suggest, implies there should be something meaningful to decide about in the first place.

And so it is with what awaits us in the Levelling Up White Paper. Neil O’Brien has offered a helpful and concise definition of what the agenda means in four easy pieces, to wit:

  • Empowering local leaders & communities;
  • Growing the private sector & boosting living standards, particularly where they’re lower;
  • Spreading opportunity & improving public services, particularly where they’re lacking; restoring local pride.

In looking at these, and the follow-on consequences of how the White Paper might treat them, we will consider the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DHLUC) to be more on the Hobbesian ‘nasty, solitary, brutish and short’ side of the debate of social origins than Rousseauan champions of the uncorrupted noble savage.

When it comes to the empowerment of our local leaders and communities, the reset of relations between central and local for more constructive ends would be as necessary as desirable.

Localis called for it in our report Hitting Rest – a case for local leadership and, in his final days as Communities Secretary, the late James Brokenshire put out a call for a Green Paper on the subject.

As to the actual transfer of powers and responsibilities and the deal-making process with Whitehall, the eyes of many ConservativeHome readers will be what this means for non-metropolitan England – and where the meat is in the county deals.

There’s incredible relish for this from among our friends in the counties. There is more obvious concern from the districts as to what role, if any, they would enjoy – even in areas with strong records of joint-working.

And this is before anyone reaches for the pearl-handed revolver to bang on about local government reorganisation. We will leave the party to consider what this might mean for political calculus and campaigning foot soldiers.

To our mind, the efficacy of driving recovery through changes of machinery to the local state remains unproven. In any case, national recovery that is sustainable and more evenly shared will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place – melding the horizontal elements of place with the sector based vertical deals from the ancien regime’s industrial strategy.

Talking of which, the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Coalition offspring of those unlikely parents Vince Cable and Eric Pickles, is also under threat from the move to a stated wish for closer democratic accountability in growth. On the White Paper wish list is the hope for clarification, if not codification, of the role of local authorities in driving growth, and something that marks out a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for Net Zero.

From the macro to the micro – and perhaps more comfortable territory of communities as Burkean ‘little platoons’. What will the White Paper have to offer in terms of pushing out the social infrastructure that needs to be laid in parallel tracks alongside the billion-pound big ticket infrastructure items?

Communities need both powers and resources to step up with a stand-alone spirit if they are to create public value. We need to allow communities to self-organise, take back control locally of assets, and deliver unique local services where they have desire and capability.

And will this be in a way that principal councils are able to facilitate and support? Or, like Gove’s academisation programme, is this a way for the centre to bypass local government as a mediator? And would this lead to the setting up of more social and children’s care trusts, in addition to the nice fun things such as community pubs, green spaces and the like?

Growing the private sector and boosting wages, skills and living standards will contain, we hope, the best fruits of the concerted thinking that has gone into the White Paper. Devolution and growth must be seen as so intrinsically linked as for one to be as impossible to conceive of as existing without the presence of the other – like ‘mom and apple pie’ or ‘bread and butter’.

As noted earlier in the reference to LEPs, the constant dodgy supermarket trolley swerving of the last decade’s national economic policy alone has made consistent long-term planning problematic.

Finding levelling up levers to encourage an area’s major local employers – local economic anchors – to invest and serve in the communities they are based in as a virtuous cycle of prosperous communities and productive places would be most beneficial.

Beyond business investment, there are of course the various ‘tournament financing’ routes where councils bid to receive – the Levelling Up Fund, Towns Fund, and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. This may be of benefit to the more superficial but sensitive quality of life and hyperlocal public realm issues, such as town centre renewal, that more readily shape public perceptions in the run up to the next general election.

For the bigger and longer-term view, it would be good if the Levelling Up agenda has any answer to the need to get heavy sums of capital money for subregional infrastructure projects shovelled more quickly to where they can create the most impact more quickly.

In his interview on this site earlier this week, George Osborne called for a doubling of local taxation. This is in stark contrast to Lord Hague’s declaration, when a devolution trouble-shooter in 2015, that from a Conservative viewpoint “localism is not a new way of imposing new taxes”.

The recent Spending Review did not inspire much in way of hope for the fiscal devolution that would inspire and support self-sufficient, locally-led economic renewal. The constrictions on council tax are set and business rates remain a disastrous and anachronistic revenue raiser.

It doesn’t have to be this way, as Localis unearthed for the Local Government Association in our analysis of growth-driven fiscal devolution in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland and as previously argued here.

But with this financial background, in which our councils are resigned to deliver less for more, the headroom for innovative local public service delivery seems limited to the hyperlocal community sector. And this is without knowing whether the White Paper will come with any dedicated funds, or whether the October public finance settlement has covered it.

Many Conservative MPs, ‘Red Wall’ and beyond, will become if they are not already are acutely alert to the fact that they risk paying the political price for an unreformed, silo-fixated Whitehall’s disjointed and agonisingly slow local delivery at local level.

The test for Levelling Up White Paper will be its ability to work through connective administrative tissue of the “people’s priorities” – clean growth, whatever new badge is thrown over industrial strategy, as well as local skills training. If it achieves what it sets out to do, a joined-up and fleshed-out levelling up could achieve a virtuous circle of devolution, leading to growth and recovery that inspires further trust and pride in place and place leadership. Better answers to the question about how we as a nation contribute to the decisions on how we live together.

Otherwise, as a certain former Number 10 Policy Director ranted on SubStack, Levelling Up risks a fate as “a vapid SW1 slogan like ‘Global Britain’, that objectively does not work & shows the opposite of ‘strategy’”.