• Andrew Black

Levelling Up......Watering Down

As is always the case Levelling Up Day arrived when I was at my busiest. During preparation for a hearing, whilst simultaneously getting 5 planning applications prepared. Having now had a chance to get a proper read through it, what are my first impressions and what does it all mean for us planners?

Well firstly, it’s a flipping whopper! At 297 pages it gives most Local Plans a run for their money. Secondly, boy do they love a coloured map of the UK! No less than 30 maps (after the one on the front cover) of the UK to demonstrate various inequalities that exist across the country of various forms. Well, durrrr, we already knew that! Although to be fair they are pretty interesting and evaluates the ‘geographical disparities’ across the country which include ‘human’, ‘financial’, ‘social’, ‘physical’, ‘intangible’, and ‘institutional’ capital. Aside from the national picture, the White Paper also shows that the government do actually understand that levelling up is something that cannot be just applied on a binary national basis but is also a regional matter, but even more so, a very local issue which occurs at a much more granular level (something I alluded to in previous blog posts). The analysis of income deprivation in RBKC shows what most of us already know and that highly affluent areas exist side by side with the most deprived areas in clusters within our cities.

So credit where credit is due, it looks like DLUHC really do have an in depth idea of what the issues are and where they exist. The White Paper has an air of a well written academic book on economic policy but what will does it all really amount to?

Well there is no shortage of spending commitments by 2030 and closing the gap. Lots of talk of boosting productivity, improving public services (specifically education), restoring a sense of community and local pride, and empowering leaders and communities all within 7 years and 11 months from now. That really, really isn’t a long time.

So how is it all achieved? Well it is clear that DLUHC sees it as a ‘mission’ (I’d certainly agree with that – a proper mission!). There is an interesting analogy / comparison of the achieving levelling up to NASA’s apollo mission. Well the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (announced as part of the Autumn Budget Spending Review) amounts to £1.5billion a year for the next 10 years. Well the apollo mission ran for a similar period of 11 years from 1961-72 and equated to $194bn (£144bn) in today’s money or the equivalent of £13bn a year for 12 people to walk on the moon. And people still don’t believe it happened! More interesting, a recent treasury committee report revealed that the UK Shared Prosperity Form is actually worth £1bn (or 60%) less than the EU Structural Fund programme it is replacing. So there is a question on why less money is being spent on more things than was the case previously?

Back to planning. Well there are a few bits in there to cling to. The White Paper makes it clear that green belt remains sacrosanct in the official lines of government with suggestions there will be plans for further greening of the green belt and improved green belts around our cities. Clearly the last thing the government wants is another Chesham on its hands. Perhaps more important is what the white paper doesn’t say……

It doesn’t say anything about levelling up of housing numbers or redistribution of housing numbers from the south east to elsewhere in the UK. We know that some local authorities put the brakes on local plans while they awaited the outcome of the Levelling Up White Paper so I really hope this gives them the comfort to crack on. It also continues to keep the concept of reforms to developer contributions firmly on the table including the prospect of land value capture but no details on how, why, what, where, when. More importantly, whilst the white paper talks about substantial devolution deals there is clear gap between how that works between local governance (easy ish to sort) and local strategic planning (more difficult) particularly in areas of substantial green belt (which the government says is still off limits). I defer to Catriona Riddell who is very much the Doyen of such matters and has undertaken some very helpful analysis of this (now that is a map of the country which should have been in the white paper).

So fair play to the government for putting all this into a white paper but what does it really mean for real people in real places?

Well the day after the levelling up white paper came out I heard grim news of the closure of the Nestle Factory in Fawdon with the loss of 474 jobs as production moves to the Czech Republic. So for most of us, our Rolos will have considerably more food miles from now on. But how does levelling up help people in Fawdon, espececially following this recent news? Well Fawdon is a ward to the north west of larger conurbation of Newcastle upon Tyne, surrounded to the North by green belt. Fawdon already has great links to Newcastle city centre in 20 minutes with a metro station and with great road links to the A1 (so no need for infrastructure improvements). The existing schools are rated as ‘good’ by Ofsted (so no massive need for education investment). Its already had an element of regeneration with the demolition of the existing eyesore tower block (always a need for more but no deseperate need for immediate regen). Employment has been saved before in Fawdon when Accord took over the other main manufacturing site after Sanofi pulled out in 2015. However with the prospect of rising interest rates and inflation at its highest level in 30 years it is questionable on whether history will repeat itself to save manufacturing jobs in this area. So for residents of Fawdon things are looking bleak and I am not sure how levelling up will help them. This is just one example that must repeated many many times over across the country. Don’t think for one minute this is me as some champagne socialist writing about Fawdon from the comfort of my house in surrey. I’ve been to Fawdon. I’ve talked to people there. I’ve witnessed first-hand the pride people have in their community and identity. But when something as important as a strong local employer shuts up shop that is nothing short of devastating for that community and levelling up is simply not going to change that. More fundamentally though, for people about to face a huge increase in living costs in the next 6 months, being told that things will be better by 2030 doesn’t help. At all.

I continue to be concerned about how the successes of levelling up will be measured. It’s clear that there isn’t a quick fix to any of this.

AB – My own Thoughts