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09 March 2020

260: ‘Levelling up’: Help to define the government priorities

The government is being clear on what its immediate priorities are – preparing for exiting the EU, addressing climate change (COP 26) and ‘levelling up’. But what ‘levelling up’ really means is far from clear. So in public affairs we need to help define what these priorities really mean.

The foundation stone should always be the party’s general election manifesto. Far from being a thin document with little detail, there is actually quite a lot in the conservative manifesto from 2019. Admittedly that is truer for some policies than others but always start there.

Part of the task of defining the government priorities is to flesh them out a little more. To expand them to explain more aspects of what they could mean. There is also, crucially, the element of providing solutions so that the government can deliver on the priorities.

If we take ‘levelling-up’ as an example then we see that the manifesto wants to ‘level up’ ‘every part of the UK’.

‘Not just investing in our great towns and cities, as well as rural and coastal areas, but giving them far more control of how that investment is made. In the 21st century, we need to get away from the idea that “Whitehall knows best” and that all growth must inevitably start in London’.

So we can start to see that this agenda is about the economy, central government investment and devolution. The manifesto then considers ‘levelling up Britain’s skills’ which includes new apprentices for all big new infrastructure projects, creating a new National Skills Fund worth £3 billion, investing to upgrade the entire further education college estate, and 20 Institutes of Technology. As part of the more economic approach, the creation of ten freeports around the UK is also part of ‘levelling up.’

So we can start to see that there is already quite a bit to unpack in terms of policy development if the government is to deliver on levelling up and that needs active engagement in policy development. So good public affairs advice is required.

But thought should also be given to how levelling up can be expanded into other areas. So could it be about:

  • educational opportunities – to allow reform of higher education which featured in the manifesto as well?;
  • social mobility – tackle the ongoing challenges to deal with the falling levels of social mobility?; or
  • health inequalities – dealing with continued failure to address life expectancy rates across the country?

In other words, levelling up could be quite flexible in its definition but only if we push as whatever perceived boundaries it has.

But the flip side is that levelling up also infers a type of glass ceiling. So when there has been talk about levelling up the powers of mayors, this has not been to powers that the Mayor of London has or even looking beyond the UK’s borders to the examples of mayors elsewhere across the world. Instead, it is allowing mayors to potentially have power up to those available to Andy Burnham and Greater Manchester, which is less than London and less than other mayors globally.

So when thinking about the defining levelling up and helping government consider the implications, we also need to be aware of the negative side as well and do what we can to combat them.

The emphasis so far has been on North-South levelling up but what about all those parts of the country that are seemingly excluded by this ‘definition’?

Also, do your best to keep up-to-date with current government thinking on the issue. That information could come from parliamentary activity, speeches and, very soon, the budget.

This all highlights the thinking that needs to go into working with government in facilitating their priorities but also appreciating how your priorities may be able to become their priorities as well. It needs some lateral and creative thinking but critically suggesting solutions as well.

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