The government report sets out a roadmap for rebalancing the UK’s economy, but will it help ensure infrastructure planning is better directed towards achieving long-term national goals?
Last week the government published its long-awaited 'Levelling Up White Paper', outlining its plan to tackle the UK’s geographical inequality and boost living standards and wellbeing.
The paper sets out an ambitious agenda to increase pay, employment and productivity across the UK and close the gap between the top and worst performing areas by 2030.
Alongside 12 medium-term levelling up missions, the government announced a new independent levelling up advisory council. It also established a statutory duty to publish an annual progress report, and measures to improve data use, increase transparency, and simplify funding for sub-national authorities.
The scale of the challenge
The UK has wider geographical differences than many other developed countries when it comes to key metrics, with economic growth and productivity over-concentrated in London and southeast England.
Rebalancing the economy is not a new ambition, as ICE has pointed out, but the government argues that previous attempts to tackle it have lacked consistency and clarity over spatial policy, and failed to institutionalise the necessary long-term policy changes.
The white paper emphasises that levelling up is not about undermining successful areas, but elevating underperforming areas which could boost the national gross domestic product (GDP) by tens of billions each year.
It also acknowledges that inequality is often hyper local, with some of the most deprived and underperforming areas of the UK located within its highest performing cities and regions.
The white paper articulates 12 medium-term missions to anchor government policy and associated outcomes to be achieved by 2030.
The government says these are 'targeted, measurable and time-bound' objectives designed to address the UK’s social, economic and environmental challenges.
What does levelling up mean for infrastructure?
A mix of interventions will be needed to deliver the necessary transformation, but the white paper recognises the vital role economic infrastructure will play as an enabler of levelling up.
Last year the Transport Committee highlighted how the lack of outcomes and metrics for levelling up has made it difficult for infrastructure planners to design projects and measure the success of investment.
The new medium-term missions and the government’s commitment to run levelling up as a ‘golden thread’ through decision-making goes someway to providing this necessary framework.
Transport is key, but no new funding announcements
As the paper makes clear, physical and digital connectivity between cities, towns and communities is essential for them to flourish.
The extensive transport infrastructure in London and the South East unlocks access to more jobs in these areas than elsewhere. Spending an hour on public transport in Newcastle and Glasgow increases job access by one third, but almost quadruples opportunity in London.
The white paper argues that as the UK’s most extensive transport network, London and the South East is also under the most strain, which in turn means it attracts the largest flow of investment. Nearly 30% of all public transport infrastructure spending is in London.
The paper pledges that by 2030, local public transport connectivity across the country will be 'significantly closer to the standards of London', and the UK will have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for most of the population.
For public transport users, the government argues this will deliver better services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing.
To deliver this the paper reiterates existing commitments, including £96 billion for rail in the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), £24 billion for roads and motorways, £5.7 billion in city region sustainable transport settlements and £5 billion for buses and active travel.
However, the lack of new announcements means attention will continue to focus on how the government responds to questions about the ambition and deliverability of plans such as the IRP and what it will take forward from the Union Connectivity Review (UCR).
Good news for the devolution agenda
The white paper also puts a renewed focus on local empowerment, with a new devolution framework and pathways for England proposed to extend, deepen and simplify local devolution.
By 2030, the government says every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at, or approaching, the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement.
There will also be negotiations on trailblazer deeper devolution deals with the West Midlands and Greater Manchester combined authorities.
To support the expansion of devolution the government will set up a new independent body in England focused on data, transparency and robust evidence, while also simplifying the funding landscape.
As the paper acknowledges, the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the industrialised world and local leaders have comparatively limited powers relative to their international counterparts.
ICE looked at this in a paper last year, exploring how subnational authorities can be empowered to address national targets like net zero and harness local knowledge and ambition.
The white paper is clear about the scale of regional inequality in the UK and the impact it has on individual opportunity and collective economic performance.
The proposals are a welcome first step in setting out how the government plans to address these challenges over the next decade.
There are some positive aspects, such as the independent advisory council and a clear role for infrastructure carried over from the abandoned industrial strategy, as well as the promise of transforming the levelling up missions into legislation.
With little new to say on key areas such as transport, the white paper does at least draw together the various initiatives already announced into an overarching framework and begins to articulate how they should contribute to the levelling up agenda.
Long-term trends such as the net-zero transition, digital transformation and the impact of Covid-19 could be particularly challenging for poorly-performing areas, but the paper makes clear the connections between these drivers and the opportunities that become available if the right interventions are made, such as new jobs in green technologies required to decarbonise the economy.
However, there is a need to embed a true public mandate, through consultation, to rise above ever-shifting political priorities and tackle these long-term issues.
ICE will be working to engage with the government during its consultation period to offer our support and ensure the infrastructure sector is clear about how it can help.