When it comes to levelling up, is money enough?
Rishi Sunak’s Spending Review this week saw the Government commit £4bn to a new ‘levelling up fund’. Designed to resource “the infrastructure of everyday life” in UK towns, the announcement was criticised as insufficient by think tanks including IPPR, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Resolution Foundation.
Labour, meanwhile, described it as “pork barrel” politics – intended to woo voters in so-called Red Wall constituencies rather than achieve real change. This follows on from claims that an earlier tranche of money – the government’s Towns Fund – had been siphoned into Tory target seats.
While these criticisms all have truth to them, a larger question perhaps is whether spending alone can address the problem of regional inequality? And if so, how?
Phil Collins, a Labour speechwriter during the era of Blair and Brown, reminded us last month that “Between 1999 and 2007, billions of pounds of public money went into deprived areas under the rubric of neighbourhood renewal.”
Collins does not go so far as to say this extra money “had no effect at all” – pointing to improvements in terms of health, education, crime and the public realm. But he concedes that “after Brexit and the collapse of the Red Wall, it would be naive to claim it as a triumph. The point, though, is that the failure was not for want of trying.”
While extra revenue is extremely welcome, therefore, Conservative advocates of the levelling up fund must give serious thought to how money achieves a real impact.
The spending earmarked is less than went into many poorer communities in the 2000s after all. And the backdrop is much harsher, thanks to austerity, the potential impact of Brexit and, of course, the fallout from COVID.
Hence, setting aside for a moment whether the fund is large enough and how it is distributed, there is a deeper question about whether it grasps the texture of each area and the diverse challenges that places face.
How have different types of area been ‘left behind’? What is required for each one to be ‘levelled up’? The answers will be unique for every local authority and every town, and will probably only come through engagement with local communities.
Our own work on towns seeks to contend with this. The diagram below shows a framework we came up with in our report, Understanding Resilience in our Towns. It is part of our efforts to understand the different challenges affecting cohesion in resilience in each place. For each of the 14 factors we identify a cluster of towns facing the respective challenges.
There are nuanced differences between the issues and play, and in some cases they are diametrically opposed. A ‘Shrinking and Aging’ town, for example, is unlikely to have much cross-over with a ‘Rapidly Changing’ one, when it comes to resilience. Local interventions and national policy solutions will need to reflect this.
We at HOPE not hate Charitable Trust come at the issue from a different angle to the government, of course. Our focus is on how places can be more resilient when it comes to welcoming new groups, adapting to change and resisting the unwanted attentions of the far right.
But the correlation between the economy and cohesion is nevertheless strong, more deprived places often being less positive about migration or multiculturalism. The policy areas discussed by Rishi Sunak in the spending review – infrastructure, growth and the public realm – are integral to resilience.
For those looking to get to the root of regional inequality, drilling down into labels like ‘left behind’ or separating out the different forms of ‘levelling up’ is perhaps the best way of achieving substantive change.