The Levelling Up White Paper: what’s inside?

Posted on 11/02/2022 by Ed Hammond.

Here, you can read our detailed paper setting out the key elements of the White Paper, published in early February 2022.

This blog aims to make some more general reflections.

It is fair to say that initial opinion on the White Paper has been mixed. There is from some quarters a degree of disappointment – that a policy paper which has been trailled for so long lacks substantial financial commitments to back it up. Some have argued that the concept of “levelling-up” has been described so broadly that it will not be possible to meaningfully define, let alone measure, success. Some have argued that the White Paper defines the problem, and proposes solutions, in a way that reflects the state’s continued tendency to centralise, to devolve only on Government’s terms – with the vaunted “devolution framework” being seen as an example of this. A further major criticism has been that the White Paper does not engage meaningfully with climate change, arguably the most major limit to growth and a driver to thinking about economic development in a profoundly different way – although the White Paper does have much to say about Net Zero transition, this is not quite the same thing. 

For those of us who have been around for a while, there is a sense that there truly is no new policy intervention under the sun – with the White Paper’s vaunted “systems change” looking an awful lot like the ghosts of Multi Area Agreements, the Total Place pilots and similar action, undertaken by the Audit Commission, RDAs and regional Government Offices fifteen years ago.

But some see in the White Paper an opportunity – one that comes of this being the first time in nearly a decade that Government has proposed substantial changes to the system of service design and delivery, and governance, across England. It may provide an opportunity to unpick and unblock challenges and barriers which have existed for some time, and where that unblocking requires Government action which has been in short supply while Westminster faces elsewhere – to Brexit or the pandemic.

As ever, the proof of the pudding will be in the legislation. When a Bill arrives – and other political circumstances permitting, that should not be long given Government’s light legislative schedule – we can be clearer about what might happen. For now, all we can do is make predictions, and to try to prepare for what may be coming.

What is clear is that what is coming is a significant shift in Government’s attention, and its bureaucracy and systems, in how they face local communities. We can expect to see a recasting of current local industrial strategies to reflect the missions; a refocusing of efforts on system change and the creation of new mechanisms to better understand and act on local need. At best this will mean better partnership and collaboration at local level – and proportionate governance systems to support this. At worst, it will mean the slowing of local action under the weight of bureaucracy, with inexpert attempts to impose transparency and accountability stymying any attempt to take agile and creative action.

Governance, then (as ever) is the key – the ability of governance professionals at local level to lead on setting up systems that provide a clear focus on outcomes, on transparency, accountability and co-ordination, while arresting the risk that those systems grow into something heavy and cumbersome. In doing this, policymakers at local level will find themselves at first wary partners of Government, testing out whether local and national actors can be consistent collaborators on these matters.

You can read our full paper here, and in the coming weeks we plan to explore further what future governance might look like in light of the White Paper and the various other drivers that exist for further transformation in the sector.


About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.