Levelling Up White Paper: ‘A start point, not the end’
While some in the North West property industry applauded the increase in R&D funding, push for brownfield housing, and support for devolution – others remained sceptical as to how the government’s ambitions will be funded and whether these plans will come to fruition.
Those were the reactions after Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove unveiled the long-anticipated Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper on 2 February.
Key points from the report include:
- The 80/20 rule, which pushed 80% of government housing funds towards London and the South East, is being scrapped. This will allow the government to divert much of the £1.8bn brownfield funding towards sites in the North and Midlands. Metro Mayors will receive £120m of this funding.
- A plan will be created to ensure all PRS homes meet a minimum standard and section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions will be abolished.
- 68 local authorities will be awarded High Streets Task Force funds
- The government will work to secure a mayoral deal in Cumbria
- A new devolution framework will be crafted
- Levelling Up Fund will allocate £4.8bn between 2024 and 2025
- At least 55% of domestic R&D funding will go outside the South East
- £100m will be invested in creating three Innovation Accelerators, public-private-academic partnerships to encourage research. They will be in Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Glasgow City Region.
- More civil service offices coming to Manchester, with relocations between 2025 and 2030.
The Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper also listed 12 ‘missions’ for the government to complete by 2030, including improving public transport connectivity, creating nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, significantly increasing the number of people completing high-quality skills training, increasing pride in place in local communities.
Jeremy Hinds, director at Savills, said that the title of the paper showed that “levelling up is a process, not an event”, and that any change would take time.
Bruntwood chief executive Chris Oglesby was pleased with the paper’s focus on R&D funding, but hoped it would not be the only support that sector received.
“The Levelling Up White Paper and its R&D investment strategy must be seen as the start point, not the end,” Oglesby said.
On the other side of the spectrum was Cllr John Blundell, Rochdale Council’s cabinet member for economy and communications and the director of the Rochdale Development Agency. He felt the white paper was largely words without substance, referencing the government’s decision to water down its Northern Powerhouse Rail ambitions last year.
“All we’ve learned from these promises is that the government is pennywise and pound foolish,” Blundell said.
Nigel Wilcock, executive director of the Institute of Economic Development was also sceptical.
“The publication of the Levelling Up White Paper may have created headlines but arguably there is not enough in there to understand how systemic change will be achieved in practice,” he said.
More Levelling Up White Paper reactions
Cllr John Merry, deputy city mayor of Salford and UK Key Cities chair
The government has listened carefully and shown a real desire to reduce regional inequalities with this white paper, but the devil is in the detail – is there enough here, both in money and structurally, to level up the country?
Every town and city across the UK has its own challenges and priorities, so Key Cities welcomes the commitment to devolution. However, devolution is complex and no one model works everywhere, so we appreciate that councils will have the choice to take such deals, rather than them be imposed.
We welcome the news that the process of bidding for funding will be simplified, but the criteria for qualifying to receive cash are still unclear. And many of our members are concerned that money from the Shared Prosperity Fund will not be sufficient to match previous regional funding from the EU. We hope the government will be able to bolster reserves so we can start to see changes in action, quickly. Our overriding concern that local authorities will still need to compete against – rather than partner with – each other for funding remains unaddressed.
There is sadly very little reference to tackling climate change and the commitments the government have already made. Following COP26 and considering the urgency of the climate crisis, we would reiterate that we have to put the environment at the heart of all policy, including in the context of levelling up.
Nicola Headlam, chief economist and head of public sector at Red Flag Alert and the former head of Northern Powerhouse
On the surface, there are some interesting announcements for the North West in the Levelling Up White Paper. Greater Manchester will get to expand the powers that Mayor, Andy Burnham, already has through a “trailblazing” devolution deal, and the city region will also benefit from a £100 million “Innovation Accelerator”.
Benefits for the region beyond Greater Manchester are less clear. Cheshire and Cumbria are not among the nine areas earmarked for a County Deal, and there is scant mention of the Liverpool City Region.
More fundamentally, the white paper seems to continue the trend of initiative-led regional economic development that has characterised government policy for over a decade now and has led to huge disparities, not just between the English regions but between individual places within them.
Red Flag Alert’s work in Greater Manchester, for example, shows that high-growth businesses cluster together in more successful places but that many lack the growth to support the aspirations of their population. Put bluntly, an Innovation Accelerator in Manchester might help “turbocharge” the growth of individual firms, but this isn’t going to create the benefits needed to level up a regional economy that has lagged behind London and the South East for decades, and which has been hammered by COVID-19.
As we recover from the pandemic, we face a decade in which public and private sectors will have to fight for every pound of growth. This requires a fundamentally different policy approach – one that is data-led and focused on wholesale redistribution of strategic investment, not catchy slogans or isolated initiatives. Unfortunately, the Levelling Up White Paper published today doesn’t provide this.
Sir Roger Marsh, chair of the NP11 group of Northern local enterprise partnerships
The North’s opportunity has been unrealised and under-invested in for decades and levelling up will only be achieved if it is a priority shared by the whole of government, working with local and regional leaders. This white paper starts to define and measure what success looks like.
Increasing R&D spending outside London and the South East is something the NP11 has consistently argued is essential, so we are pleased to see this at the forefront of today’s announcement.
It is encouraging to see continued government commitment to devolution, as well as recognition of the vital role of public-private partnerships being convened by Local Enterprise Partnerships and pan-regional partnerships like the NP11.
We are pleased to see that the Shared Prosperity Fund, and other key funding streams, will be devolved to local areas and look forward to seeing the details of how these funds will operate.
Nigel Wilson, chair of Homes for the North
Homes for the North warmly welcomes confirmation of the decision to scrap the 80:20 rule, which will remove a serious block on delivering more and better homes in the North. We also welcome the commitment to spend a bigger slice of the £1.8bn brownfield funding in the North and Midlands. Now a long-term replacement for 80:20 is needed. Government and Homes England need to adopt a new umbrella strategy for spending money in the right places to Level Up. A long-term strategic commitment to the North is essential if we are to build enough new homes to drive prosperity and build local pride in our communities.
Clare Hayward, chair of Cheshire and Warrington LEP
Following the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper it is good to see the continued support for the role that LEPs have played and we will continue in our role of supporting local businesses, the local economy and regional economic growth.
Levelling up means creating opportunities for everyone and by working together with our partners we can continue to create opportunities for business investment and innovation in areas including net zero and life sciences.
We will be considering how the details of the Levelling Up White Paper will help us build a healthier, greener, stronger and fairer economy in Cheshire and Warrington.
I am pleased to see commitment to bus improvements for Warrington as part of the white paper. Proper connectivity is vital to ensuring all of our area benefits from the opportunities we are creating here.
We will continue to look to accelerate and grow in ways that will make a difference locally and for the whole of the UK as well as drive innovation.
Kevin Whitmore, head of the North at BECG
The Levelling Up White Paper is strong on its analysis of the challenges that the North faces but it isn’t yet the final word on what the solutions are. There is much to like in what has been announced; broadening and deepening devolution, dangling the prospect of combined authorities raising their own funds from 2023 and the scrapping of the 80/20 formula for government investment.
But for levelling up to mean anything for voters who lent the Conservative Party their support in 2019, we need to see physical improvements to the social fabric of communities – better transport links, rejuvenated high streets and better quality homes. That is a tall order by the time of the next general election and could explain why the government is keen to stretch what it means by levelling up in all directions.
John Downes, chief executive officer of Langtree and chairman of Sci-Tech Daresbury
If the government is to achieve its levelling up agenda, it’s essential a geographically targeted approach is taken with the increase in R&D investment as outlined in last year’s budget and reiterated in this long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper.
The Innovation Accelerator model could be pivotal in helping turbocharge the science and technology ecosystem within the three regions it will be rolled out to. Yet it needs to go further, and we hope to work with government to explore how our businesses, academic and public sector organisations can help to unlock the potential in our region.
Our own campus has long been a champion of the potential of research and innovation clusters. But if these sectors are to reach their potential, we need the necessary skilled workforce. That the government will also be providing an additional £550 million boost to Skills Bootcamps to offer greater support to SMEs is therefore very welcome, and we hope these will be focussed on training future generations to undertake jobs in the sectors of the future or where there are noticeable skills shortages such as AI, data analytics, coding, and engineering.
These are hugely encouraging steps in the right direction, yet further work is needed to form the cohesive plan of action that will achieve the levelling up outcomes we all desire.
Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities
In this white paper the government recognises that bridging the country’s long-standing economic divides is its most important job. The focus on issues that really matter to people – education, pay, life expectancy – should be applauded. So, too, should its willingness to look beyond quick fixes and short-term political gimmicks.
That being said, a programme that makes the whole country more prosperous will need to last beyond 2030. It needs the backing not just from this government, but also from future governments – irrespective of their political composition. Without this, it risks being discarded like past programmes when there is a change of government. The onus is now on everyone to make it work.
Caroline Baker, managing partner at Cushman & Wakefield
The 12 “national missions” are something that many of us will wholeheartedly support and there are some great initiatives that will drive real change in some communities. The missions cover all the main bases that we would expect to see – with the exception of climate change. Most of them are principles that underpin many regeneration and town centre strategies that local authorities have prepared over the last twenty years. However, levelling up will only happen if all central government departments get behind the missions and determine policy and initiatives which support them and that the other political parties agree to continue these beyond the current parliament.
If we have established a national and long-term commitment to level up and “deliver the biggest shift in power in modern terms”, we now need to see this resulting in action on the ground to unlock investment in town centres and brownfield/sustainable locations.
Many local stakeholders know what they want and need to do but ultimately require more resources to boost capacity and capability so that the public and private sector can work together to unlock new homes and employment opportunities in sustainable locations. When that happens, more people will start to feel that time has been called on the postcode lottery.
Nigel Wilcock, executive director of the Institute of Economic Development
The publication of the Levelling Up White Paper may have created headlines but arguably there is not enough in there to understand how systemic change will be achieved in practice.
However, the ambition of setting ‘The 12 Missions to Level Up the UK,’ cutting across the work of seven other government departments is far-reaching – and could be seen as an agenda to impact on the lives of those missed by the economic policies of the past. Let’s hope this is a genuine attempt to achieve just that, and there is little to disagree with in terms of such a goal.
There is a need for significantly more detail on how the missions will be achieved and whether this is a genuine cross-government initiative or a political land grab by DLUHC. More devolution and a consistent approach to economic delivery structures is welcome, but we hope that the detail is more policy than politics and more process than yet more prosecco.
Peter Tooher, executive director at Nexus Planning
There’s a lot to digest, but the aspirations have to be lauded. Given the economic and social challenges we face in the North West we will be the near the top of many a list for funding in the newly heralded and ‘hard-wired’ spatial approach. Nevertheless, we will need the dots to be joined up and a radical shift in gear in decision making to make the most of the opportunities – 2030 is not that far off – and the planning system is not currently set up or resourced to do that.”
Walter Boettcher, head of research and economics at Colliers
The government’s unveiling of a levelling up plan is welcome after long delays due to pandemic and political fallout from Brexit. Levelling up aspirations have been part of the Conservative agenda since at least 2014 when George Osborne announced the Northern Powerhouse initiative. Much of the political apparatus to enable regional development is already in place given the undeniable progress with regional devolution and the rise of mayoral systems that are already paying noteworthy development dividends in several parts of the country.”
The principles underlying this approach to development remain solid. The challenge now is overcoming the erosion of fiscal firepower that occurred over the last two years, although as the government press release makes clear, ‘unleashing private sector investment’ is really the key. It is not about the volume of government investment, it is about targeting limited resources to create investible environments.
Richard Bonner, city executive for the North at Arcadis
There is a golden thread through the Levelling Up White Paper addressing the issues of skills and educational attainment. We welcome the strengthening of local devolution powers and responsibilities to develop programmes that suit local needs. This is vitally important to accelerate the transformation of economies, but also support the transition of skills to accelerate net zero carbon reduction in our city regions. Here, systematic approaches are required to develop complex programmes across energy networks, transport systems, industry, housing and buildings and the White Paper creates a strong platform for strengthening these.
There are also areas where further detail is still needed. For example, it’s important that we now see smaller towns and urban areas being picked up by the newly proposed county deals and further detail on the powers and remit of the new Levelling Up Council. More broadly, while there is much to celebrate in the white paper, we look forward to seeing greater clarity on funding and how that funding will be implemented to deliver what has been promised effectively and in line with the ambitious targets set.
Steve Beechey, group public sector director at Wates Group
The Levelling Up White Paper provides a welcome vision for addressing regional inequalities in our society and it is clear the construction industry has a critical role to play in delivering this. We are encouraged by the measures in this paper to redirect funding towards homebuilding in the Midlands and the North, as well as the commitment to regenerate 20 cities across the UK.
As a business with a significant national footprint, we are ready to start delivering on the government’s new levelling up ‘missions’ – building the thousands of new homes the country needs, updating and building hundreds of modern schools and colleges, and providing the infrastructure required to increase opportunity throughout the country. For example, we are already building three ‘Net Zero schools’ in Greater Manchester and Lancashire, creating jobs, training opportunities and apprenticeships for people in the local area.
The government should also take this opportunity to align its commitment to levelling up with the drive to reach net zero. By prioritising net zero as a focal point of the levelling up agenda, the government can help create new jobs, skills and industries throughout the whole of the country.
Jeremy Hinds, director at Savills
Levelling up is a process, not an event
As the aim is to reduce regional inequalities, the white paper has set out the means by which economic, political and cultural investment has focussed on London and its hinterland. The devolution agenda begins to re-address political imbalances, but greater commitment will be needed if communities across the North, are to materially benefit and witness notable change.
It means providing real powers to local authorities and mayors to invest in established and create new local networks between agencies that can deliver change. In part, this means creating places where people embrace life opportunities and experience for real that their community provides for lifetime enjoyment.
Visions for town centres, revitalised high streets, open and welcoming public places, good design in houses, offices and public buildings all contribute to a sense of place. But those visions must form part of a matrix of wider societal needs so that everyone, starting with children, can see the benefits of where they live. And no one is deprived of life chances just because of where they live.
Paul Lakin, executive director of place at Bury Council
The government need to put more focus on providing direct revenue resources to councils to allow them to scale-up delivery. There is a shortage of highly skilled people with built environment skills generally and after years of austerity local authorities need proper and structured support.
The government should not lose focus on locations in the North which are capable of attracting private sector investment at scale, and if public money is not effectively leveraged it won’t go far enough to make meaningful change. Those authorities in the north which can partner with capable developers and attract investment at scale should be supported to achieve that.
Darren Zitren, partner at Cluttons
The key points in the levelling up white paper all look and sound good in theory. However, the critical point is actually around 5G and Gigabit roll out as without this sped up uniformly across the UK, we risk investment, jobs, education and healthcare and basically all other items required for levelling up.
In our latest research, conducted in partnership with YouGov, less than half of councillors said their local authority has a digital infrastructure strategy in place, less than a third believed their local authority is doing enough to smooth the rollout of infrastructure and only 15% believed they had the funding in place to prioritise digital connectivity.
We have slipped below three other G7 countries in the performance of our broadband and there are many challenges we need to urgently overcome if levelling up is to be successful. Without the proper understanding and infrastructure in place for the rollout, there’s a danger that many of these points will be missed. Connectivity simply must be crucial to the government agenda.
Adam Hymes, commercial property partner at Kuits
Everyone in the North West who works within the property sphere will appreciate the promise of fresh investment and support from central government. However, the devil will be in the detail. For example, brownfield funding is to be diverted from London and the South East. However, whilst the government states that ‘much of’ a total £1.8 billion will be redeployed, they also say that Metro Mayors will be allocated £120 million. That represents less than 7% of the brownfield ‘pot’ on the Government’s own figures. Whilst the levelling up paper looks hopeful for the region, Whitehall must be held to account for grand promises, and actual commitments in hard cash must be scrutinised.
Stephen O’Malley, co-founding director of Civic Engineers
We obviously welcome any funding and focus on levelling up to ensure that our towns and cities in the North can thrive and provide opportunities for those who live, work and visit them.
In yesterday’s white paper, commitment was made to improve local transport and rejuvenate town centres, both crucial but the realities and constraints surrounding delivery need to be acknowledged. Timelines are too long leaving the North with disrupted and disjointed networks and there is a disconnect between capital expenditure and operational expenditure which often means excellent schemes are watered down to match stretched maintenance budgets.
Above all, to enable real change, and lead with a nature based techniques, we need to see a shift in mindset and investment in hearts and minds. We have seen through the resistance to the implementation of the Manchester Clean Air Zone that there needs to be an investment in local authorities so they can deliver active travel in a way that truly facilitates change, making active travel the automatic first choice and create real momentum in helping our Northern communities understand the ‘why’ so real shifts in behaviour can take place.
Chris Oglesby, chief executive of Bruntwood and chair of Innovation Greater Manchester:
Investing in the innovative capacity of our places through increased R&D spending outside of London and the South East is key to long-term prosperity. For us, this is the real major opportunity presented by the new levelling up strategy to drive growth in city regions.
It’s a fantastic outcome for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands to be identified as new Innovation Accelerators zones along with Glasgow City Region. Both regions have long been the engines of growth for their wider local economies and so supporting their success makes sense if we’re to level up the towns and communities they connect with.
We now need to work quickly to use this momentum opportunity to create to turn our R&D strengths into more jobs and opportunities across our city regions, attracting long-term investment from the private sector and setting the course for new high productivity industries across the North and Midlands.
The Levelling Up White Paper and its R&D investment strategy must be seen as the start point, not the end. Levelling Up needs to become a bipartisan issue that lasts longer than one parliament and truly addresses the stark spatial imbalances within the UK; quite simply, because things will take much longer than that to fix.
Bill Davidson, managing director at P4 Planning
It’s good for the North that levelling up is taking centre stage but the proof will be in the pudding.
It has been on the agenda in various forms so many times before and needs now to focus on improving education and infrastructure to create the platform to accelerate economic growth and enhance social wellbeing.
Investment in town planning is critical to help unlock sustainable development and for placemaking, and it will be interesting to see what teeth the ‘missions’ will have on making a difference to people’s lives across the region. The levelling up agenda must prioritise improving accessibility between the regional cities to help them thrive and such strategic policies need to transcend governments and maintain cross-party support.
I’m optimistic because towns and cities across the north are already prospering and have many of the right ingredients which, with sustained government focus and the right infrastructure in place, will no doubt accelerate economic prosperity and go some way to levelling up in the coming years.
Stephen Church, EY’s North markets leader and Manchester office managing partner
Today’s commitment of further devolution to numerous areas of England is warmly welcomed. Bringing decision-making closer to the people is central to this agenda, ensuring the right action to combat inequality is focused locally, and further devolution will enable other regions to follow in the footsteps of strong mayoral leaders.
Funding announced to support towns and cities across the North, such as the plans for bus improvements in Warrington announced today, are fundamental to supporting regeneration, which will be key to driving a balanced pandemic recovery in the places that need it most. The announcement of a new Innovation Accelerator to be based in Greater Manchester, will enable local businesses and researchers to accelerate local growth backed by new government funding, enhancing the creation of a well-connected, skilled labour market to fuel employment for the future.
However, our latest Regional Economic Forecast report shows that while the economic bounce of a post-pandemic recovery will help, London is on course to pull ahead once again after 2025, together with their working-age population set to grow whilst the North’s is forecast to shrink. If the North is to keep up with the capital in the long-term, these promises must be actioned now.
Gavin Taylor, executive director at Far East Consortium
“Whether new funding or existing, support for brownfield regeneration should be welcomed as an integral part of any strategy to level up regional communities and address long-term housing issues. Brownfield development remains complex though, and those local authorities benefitting from today’s announcements face a series of challenges ahead to assemble and unlock potentially piecemeal landbanks in a cost-efficient way that aligns to their strategic regeneration plan. The end goals of the initiatives set out today are potentially a decade away but, done right, have the potential to be transformative in addressing social inequality and set a standard for sustainable low carbon communities.”
Cllr John Blundell, Rochdale Council cabinet member for economy and communications and director of Rochdale Development Agency
I take exception to the phrase ‘levelling up’.
If you look at the previous rounds of funding, we’ve exhausted the shovel-ready schemes and the government hasn’t funded them properly. What the white paper falls short in describing is how this will address fundamental issues like deprivation, unemployment, over the long term. It’s not just about bricks and mortar, and Homes England having a different remit. It’s far more substantial and that will require long-term investment… ‘Levelling Up’ appears to be another set of sloganeering. Looking at Northern Powerhouse, every time the Conservative party comes out with these promises they’ve fallen well short. All we’ve learned from these promises is that the government is pennywise and pound foolish.
Laura Sherliker, director at The Fairhursts Design Group
The Levelling Up White Paper is a positive step to level up the North. Investment in R&D across the region will see an upturn in development, job creation and upskilling that will add to the prosperity of the region.
This investment needs to be focused on those areas and sectors with demonstratable clear world-class expertise and not spread thinly so it has no chance to succeed. It also needs to be sustained over a period of years to ensure that businesses are supported whist they grow and become better established to compete on both a national and world stage, at which point commercial support will kick in.
However, I do have concerns about how this will be measured, and that it will truly benefit the communities it is intended for, as ever, location of investment will be critical to its success.
If we work together to increase research, development and skills we should be able to allow individuals to access good jobs in the communities where they live, improve productivity and help every part of the UK reach its full potential.
George MacMillan, head of banking and real estate finance at Kuits
Having spoken to several lending institutions of late, it is clear that one sector they remain keen to fund and support is the housing sector. The Levelling Up White Paper comprises some 330 pages and I struggled to see much detail in relation to reallocation of government funding for housing, the bulk of which is spent mostly on London and the South East. If Michael Gove is serious about levelling up, he and the government must demonstrate a strong intention to reallocate housing spend to the North. In doing so, this could generate considerable interest from those lenders who have historically concentrated their funding to the M25 belt.
Jamie Allison, head of real estate at Napthens
One of the key takeaways from the government’s Levelling Up white paper is the plans to create more regional mayors. This is good news for the areas that will get them. However, there are still many local areas where power is currently centralised that would benefit from devolution. For mayoral posts to work they must cover a specific area and give the mayor the power to invoke initiatives that they believe are directly applicable to the area they preside over. For example, a mayoral role that covered South Lakes, Lancaster and Morecambe, would give the Mayor the ability and autonomy to seek the £70m required to develop Eden North, rather than relying on central government and slowing the process.
Appointing regional mayors is one step towards devolution, but we must go further. Local authorities must be allowed to decide what the priorities are in their own areas and where to allocate spend. Being overseen by central government only leads to key local opportunities being missed.
Colin Drury, managing director at Medlock
The government’s levelling up white paper is a step in the right direction, particularly the commitment to improving high-quality skills training in every area of the UK.
Despite best efforts, the construction industry hasn’t been able to cultivate homegrown talent for many technically skilled positions. As a result, we’re struggling to adequately replace the ageing workforce. The skills crisis our industry is facing is detrimental to the sector and the national economy. It will continue to worsen without positive action and tangible commitment.
The government can expand training opportunities and highlight the structured career progression our industry offers. This could lead to a reinvigorated construction sector, giving us a better shot at solving issues like the race to net-zero.
Frank Pennal, chief executive of Close Brothers Property Finance
With this White Paper containing no announcement of new money, I am sceptical that the £1.5bn Brownfield Fund and £1.5bn Home Building Fund will bring with them the rise in SME housebuilding our economic recovery necessitates. As local and regional SME housebuilders have long been aware, the real barrier to the delivery of new homes remains the planning process. Until this is overhauled, true levelling up will remain out of reach.
Mark Robinson, group chief executive at leading public procurement authority SCAPE
“Infrastructure investment and, critically, the degree to which it improves communities has long been a barometer for the success of local authorities. While the national debate will centre on the degree of funding provided to support levelling up, the challenge for local leaders now is to maximise the money outlined in today’s white paper. To that end, backing for further devolution will no doubt empower more targeted investment and decision making that ultimately enhances local communities, creates a sustainable legacy and uses taxpayer money to attract further inward investment.”
Comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.