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Infrastructure blog

Whatever happened to levelling up?

08 April 2024

The UK government published its final levelling up missions, but whether delivery is achievable is still uncertain.

Whatever happened to levelling up?
The ICE recommended that measuring progress on ‘levelling up’ should be geared towards local outcomes. Image credit: Shutterstock

Two years on from the Levelling Up White Paper, this former flagship government policy has been sidelined.

Energy security, foreign policy, and economic challenges have taken centre stage instead.

Still, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) recently published its final 12 levelling up missions.

Alongside this, it published the metrics the UK government will use to measure progress as part of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act.

What’s missing?

The publication of the final levelling up missions marks necessary progress from rhetoric to reality.

But, while infrastructure should be a cornerstone of multiple missions, there’s a lack of detail around delivery.

There’s also a gap when it comes to net zero and climate change. The Skidmore Review referenced how the UK can “seize opportunities for levelling up” as part of place-based outcomes resulting from the net zero transition.

But the government has continued to distance itself from openly backing net zero, rowing back on specific targets, so the lack of alignment is unsurprising.

If either agenda is to succeed, each must reinforce the other.

The government has missed an opportunity to align the levelling up agenda with net zero, as previously recommended by the ICE.

A local-first approach

The ICE has said that local needs assessments are the first step to achieving the best outcomes and ensuring levelling up investment reaches the people who most need it.

These assessments, informed through community engagement, can pinpoint where infrastructure can help address inequalities.

Accordingly, the government has put focus on using the appropriate local authority metrics to measure the success of levelling up policy.

The missions outline that by 2030:

  • Mission 4: the UK will have nationwide coverage of gigabit-capable broadband and 4G mobile network, with an ambition towards extending 5G to all populated areas.
  • Mission 6: the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will significantly increase in every area of the UK.
  • Mission 7: the health life expectancy (HLE) will be reduced.
  • Mission 8: wellbeing will improve across the whole of the UK.
  • Mission 9: people will have more pride in where they live.
  • Mission 13: every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal

With some of these missions, data is still under development, but the plan is for metrics to be tracked by local authorities, councils, and governments.

Budget cuts shed doubts

However, with ongoing budget cuts straining councils in lower-income areas, the question remains if local authorities have enough resources to obtain this data in the first place.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) recently reported that councils have been able to spend just a fraction of the government’s promised levelling up funding.

Only just over 10% of the funds were spent on reducing inequality under the levelling up agenda.

Supporting high- and low-performing areas

Inequality continues to grow across the country.

That’s why the ICE has recommended that levelling up metrics should focus on local outcomes.

Specific targets are needed for high- and low-performing areas.

Mission 10 outlines that by 2030, renters will have a secure path to home ownership, with the number of first-time buyers increasing in all areas.

The government’s ambition is for the number of non-decent rented homes to have fallen by 50%, with the biggest improvements in the lowest-performing areas.

The wording of this mission shows that the government’s focus will remain on the lowest-performing areas, so outcomes in high-performing areas could lag.

How to track progress

For home ownership, the plan is to track first-time buyer numbers per year, using regional data.

This metric best captures the extent to which the UK government is delivering a viable path to home ownership for existing renters.

However, there are currently no official UK government statistics that provide this data at a regional level.

The UK government has committed to develop this public metric within the next year.

The ICE’s recommendation has been carried forward to an extent, but there’s still a way to go to ensure outcomes are measured at a more local level.

The missions lack specific targets for high-performing areas, as many already exist for the lowest-performing areas. These additional targets are needed to ensure that parts of the country don’t ‘level down’.

The future of levelling up

Alongside industrial strategy, levelling up has been a cornerstone of government policy priorities across the last five years.

While these missions are relatively focused and ambitious, there will be challenges to ensure their full implementation.

Instead of fixating on achieving the lowest capital cost in delivery, the government should give more weight to the whole-life benefits of projects and programmes, and improved interconnectivity through better infrastructure investment.

This is to ensure value for money for households under pressure due to increasing inflation and living costs.

Misleading short-term thinking

The PAC report also highlighted that bids for so-called ‘shovel-ready’ projects, which were supposed to be delivered by March 2024, beat out bids for more impactful, long-term regeneration plans.

Yet 60 out of 71 of these projects weren’t ‘shovel-ready’ after all, and have had to extend to 2024-25, with further delays in other schemes likely.

Infrastructure provided through levelling up will play a huge role in enabling better economic and social opportunities through improved connectivity, job creation, access to services, and more.

But more long-term thinking is necessary to determine success and deliver for the communities the policy is intended to serve.

There’s a general election coming up in the next year, and the recent budget outlined that capital investment is frozen in real terms.

As such, whether the levelling up missions can deliver on their goals is still up in the air.

In case you missed it

  • ICE Policy Fellow Dr Kaloyana Kostova discusses the benefits of developing offshore wind for regional growth and clean energy transmission.
  • ICE representatives outline how Middle East and North African governments can improve their strategic infrastructure planning.
  • Laura Cunliffe-Hall, interim lead policy manager at ICE