Mark Goyder is a senior advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He’s the founder of Tomorrow’s Company and co-author with Ong Boon Hwee of Entrusted: Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation.
Life expectancy for a man living in Blackpool is 74 years. In the London Borough of Westminster, it is over 84. In Barnsley, 15% of disadvantaged pupils go to university. In London, 45% do.
Geographical inequality in the UK is stark. Our government’s Levelling Up White Paper aims to reduce it by 2030 with “a plan to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of it.”
It sets out “a complete system change of how government works that will be implemented to level up the UK.” Policy across Whitehall is to be aligned. The approach will encompass six “capitals” which the authors see as critical to inequality:
- Physical capital — infrastructure, machines, and housing.
- Human capital — the skills, health, and experience of the workforce.
- Intangible capital — innovation, ideas, and patents.
- Financial capital — resources supporting the financing of companies.
- Social capital — the strength of communities, relationships, and trust.
- Institutional capital — local leadership, capacity, and capability.
This sounds promising. Systemic thinking across departments. A partnership approach. Long-term objectives pursued consistently over a decade. Measurement that goes beyond the financial or economic.
As the White Paper says, this is what we need from government:
“There has been no shortage of attempts to tackle geographical disparities in the UK over the past century. These have been insufficient to close the widening gaps. That is because these efforts have tended to be short-term, lacked scale and co-ordination . . . Levelling up requires a focused, long-term plan of action.”
So, how is long-term focus to be sustained? The plan needs to outlast the electoral cycle and the inevitable party-political see-saw. There needs to be cross-party consensus around key objectives for the next ten years, channelling competition between the parties away from point-scoring and into a race to excel on agreed indicators. This means building trust and working with political opponents to agree on the key pillars of the plan.
The context for the launch of this report could hardly have been less consensual. Quite apart from all the other goings-on, there were jibes contrasting a Conservative administration that was “delivering” with an Opposition that “has no plan.”
Ignoring that unpromising start, let’s judge the White Paper on its merits.
It is strong on social capital. In 2020, Conservative MP Danny Kruger produced The New Social Covenant, a report for the Prime Minister analysing community responses to the pandemic and suggesting what government could do to extend and sustain these. Support for citizens who mobilise to strengthen their own neighbourhoods is a vital component of tackling inequality and unfairness. Kruger called for a Community Power Act, creating the “Community Right to Serve” by which community groups can challenge for a role in the design and delivery of public services. While not agreeing to this, the Government has committed to schemes piloting new models of community partnership.
This appears to echo a commitment in the White Paper to a “simplified” approach to devolution. The commitment seems genuine; the approach is anything but simple. New devolution deals must be negotiated. The government will decide who gets what. With the ruling party’s MPs clamouring for chunks of new funding that shows the government has “delivered” in their own constituency, one is left with the worry that the Red Wall may be made of pork barrels.
Looking back, a simple way to strengthen devolution during the pandemic would have been to build on existing local authority know-how (through directors of public health) to achieve effective contact tracing. Instead, the government spent £37bn on a centralised, consultant-driven system which the Public Accounts Committee says has failed to meet its main objective.
For a plan that claims to be “systemic” and “long-term”, there are some shocking omissions. The White Paper’s list of six capitals ignores natural capital. This week, it was reported in the Guardian that fisheries scientists have found that rivers and burns in the Highlands of Scotland are already too warm in summer for wild Atlantic salmon as they head upstream to spawn, increasing the threat to the species’ survival. Only 35% of Scotland’s 64,000 miles of river have adequate tree cover. As a result, there is now a plan to plant a million trees by 2035. The World Economic Forum and others have warned us that we are destroying biodiversity at an alarming rate and this threatens our ability to produce the food or the medicines we need. Nowhere in the White Paper could I find serious reference to bio-diversity or to Net Zero. It is as if nature and economics lived in separate universes. Any serious levelling up plan would contain commitments to protect and regenerate natural capital.
The Government says that it wants to:
“Ensure that pay, employment and productivity has risen in every area of the UK, with the gap between the top performing and other areas closing.”
This is an admirable intention. Many of us will have ideas on the approach to enterprise and wealth creation that is most likely to contribute to its achievement.
Yet two things are immediately clear. Little will be achieved unless a single-party approach is replaced by a collaborative one that is designed to survive several General Elections. And the White Paper will soon be discredited if the agenda that is developed says next to nothing about biodiversity or climate change and their economic importance.