COMMENT | Levelling Up White Paper: a developer’s view
Lack of new funding and a 2030 deadline means levelling up dreams will have a hard time becoming reality… but there are positives, writes Phil Mayall of Muse Developments.
At Muse, we welcome the recently published Levelling Up White Paper, as it starts to define what the government means by the term ‘levelling up’, rather than the accusation that it’s simply a soundbite. For decades we’ve known that we need to ‘level up’, but The Economist helpfully notes that between January 2010 and July 2019, the term ‘levelling up’ was only used 57 times in parliament. Since then, it’s been used 3,277 times and there’s now even a department bearing its name. The white paper, therefore, starts to crystalise what’s meant by the term.
The paper is clearly a weighty piece totalling 338 pages (excluding the technical annexe and supporting information) and that in itself causes an issue in that there is no clear definition. But, in the 12 missions, we’re given some clarity around what the government would like to achieve and, critically, measure.
It also helps that the government is recognising that key towns and cities across the UK will play a significant role in achieving its missions, both in the announcement of three innovation accelerators in Birmingham, Glasgow and Greater Manchester, and the news that there’ll be a focus on 20 key locations, with the cities of Wolverhampton and Sheffield referenced as the first two. This looks like it’s a step back from the previous direction of travel, which appeared to bypass the cities and target smaller towns exclusively.
While a target of 2030 is commendable, in my opinion, this isn’t realistic. As an example, working with Salford City Council through our JV, The English Cities Fund, has taken the best part of 15 years to tackle deprivation and ‘level up’ 50 acres of the city. As we know, regeneration takes time and a holistic approach is required to deliver the change that’s needed to positively affect our communities.
A further key factor here is the lack of funding. The October spending review set out plans for the next three years and there’s no new funding on top of this. The government will need to set out its plans for 2025 and beyond in order to keep close as possible to its 2030 target.
Funding streams like the Shared Prosperity Fund are only replacements for former European pots that were allocated for the very purpose of ‘levelling up’. If they’d been successful, the paper wouldn’t have been needed in the first place. As Centre for Cities has stated on a number of occasions, Germany has spent a massive €2 trillion (approximately equal to £55bn per annum) since 1990 on its Aufbau Ost programme to ‘level up’ East Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall and its reunification… and this still hasn’t been achieved.
As ever, a shift in mindset is needed from Whitehall in order to deliver this. It’s also interesting to note that delivering devolution will require more centralisation – The Economist reports that the number employed in the Cities and Local Growth Unit will rise from 420 to 750.
Following the announcement of the white paper, it has been clear there’s a desire from senior ministers within government, including the prime minister, to hit the road and visit a number of places to push the ‘levelling up’ agenda. We’ve recently seen both Boris Johnson and the secretary of state for levelling up, Michael Gove, at our Talbot Gateway scheme, which is being delivered in partnership with Blackpool Council. Gove also visited our Grade A offices in Birkenhead town centre, which are on site as part of our joint venture with Wirral Council, Wirral Growth Company. It is clear the government is keen to show that there’s life past Watford Gap and be visible in the more Northern parts of the country.
For Muse, the key highlight for us in the paper is the suggestion that Homes England will be refocused to deliver regeneration-based activities, as opposed to its current incarnation of being entirely focused on housing output. Our JV with both Homes England and Legal & General, The English Cities Fund, is mentioned as an exemplar of how this can be achieved and we’re looking forward to engaging with more local authorities up and down the country to deliver this innovative, partnership brand of regeneration.
- Phil Mayall is a board director at Muse Developments