After all the hot take in the first 24 hours, here’s a more considered take from Toby Lloyd, the Chair of the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Left Behind Commission.”
The sceptical take on last week’s long awaited Levelling Up White Paper it is that it’s largely a rehash of existing policies and initiatives, loosely bound together with some cod history of urban economics and vague buzz phrases – and critically lacking in new spending promises. Economist Diane Coyle summed it up neatly, saying that its subtitle should be ‘we are one nation, honest’.
There’s clearly some truth in this caricature, but it also misses the real import of the White Paper, which is in the overarching narrative that it sets out, and some of the under-the-bonnet changes to the way government does business that it contains. Reviving some of the regeneration objectives of the Blair-Brown years, or the Industrial Strategy goals of the May government, may not satisfy the media desire for novelty – but rebalancing the national economy is obviously a long term project that won’t be achieved by changing direction every few years. Would we really prefer it if they had just abandoned long promised policies like those of the Social Housing Green Paper, or the reform of the private rented sector?
In the absence of big investment announcements, pledges to reprofile existing funding streams may seem like small beer, but they could herald a really significant change in the processes and priorities that guide government investment for decades ahead – which are at least as important as the nominal amount of cash available for anyone one project this year. As an example, look at the 80/20 rule, which the White Paper finally (re)announced the death of. This arcane bit of internal government policy dictates that 80% of public investment in infrastructure for new housing must go to the half of the country where houses are least affordable – which is to say, the richer half gets most of the cash. There’s a logic to this – there always is – but it’s not a good logic. In fact the 80/20 rule was introduced in 2018 as a result of a tortuous negotiation between Philip Hammond’s Treasury and the Theresa May’s No. 10. I had the misfortune to be part of that wrangle: all I can say is that, like laws and sausages, anyone who cares about public investment decisions really should take care to avoid seeing how they’re made…. That the 80/20 rule is still dictating the pattern of spending years after both left office shows just how powerful these tedious technical rules can be – and how they can survive political changes once they’re embedded in Whitehall processes. So I think the commitments in the White Paper to targeting geographic inequality and ‘rewiring Whitehall’ accordingly could be potentially genuinely transformational – if they lead to real changes to the funding rules and the bureaucratic processes that apply them. The ‘revamp’ of the infamous Treasury Green Book, announced at the autumn Spending Review, will be vital to this.
Similarly, it’s easy to mock a document that copies chunks of Wikipedia’s pages on the economic origins of Jericho (the trade in essential oils, apparently), but bringing a bit of narrative coherence to the huge amount of things that any government does is no mean feat. That narrative is essentially that the geographic distribution of stuff matters, and that boosting the economies, environments and lives lived in left behind places should be a goal of spending and policy choices. That sounds pretty basic, but as the 80/20 rule shows, it’s not how the system currently operates. Neil O’Brien, Minister for Levelling Up, describes the traditional Treasury view as being ‘we’re only going to water the plants if they start growing.’ If a principle that watering should actually precede growth gains credence within government it will come to influence a lot of decisions for years to come – and over £250bn of spending and 130 policies are linked to plans in the White Paper. Despite the fears of paranoid politicians, civil servants do not generally have a grand plan they’re secretly working to, and are desperate for clear guidance as to what their ministers really want. As ministers frequently can’t actually give them this, a big picture objective can be hugely influential in guiding decisions – especially if it comes with clear metrics. ‘Build more homes’ is something departments can understand, even if the rest of government policy in their area is riddled with contradictions. For that reason the White Paper’s emphasis on gathering better data, evaluating what works, and reporting annually on progress, could have lasting impact – and after a decade of cuts to data collection will be very welcome, at least to us policy wonks.
Finally, there’s no denying how much political capital the government has staked on the levelling up agenda. I might have expected them to quietly drop it long ago – but instead they have repeatedly doubled down on the commitment. They are now absolutely on the hook to deliver – and without huge amounts of cash to do so. That suggests to me that they will be more willing to consider genuinely radical policy change as the only way to achieve their ambitions – for example, reforming the private rented sector and toughening up Compulsory Purchase rules. And don’t forget that this is a White Paper – it’s essentially the start of a strategy making process, not the end. All of which makes the next stage of more detailed policy development a critical opportunity for influencing government.
Specific bits I think are interesting, relevant or worth keeping an eye on – many of which are policies the No Place Left Behind Commission called for back in September.
Private Rented Sector reform
- Repeating the commitment to abolish Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions that has been government policy since 2019 (p.226)
- Plans for ‘a crackdown on rogue landlords – making sure fines and bans stop repeat offenders leaving renters in terrible conditions.’ This is good news – although similar pledges have been made before.
- So the promise to consult on introducing a landlords register is encouraging, as this is an essential step for proper enforcement.
- Also in the good news, long overdue category: all homes in the Private Rented Sector will have to meet the Decent Homes Standard.
- Although the tone of the White Paper is much less obsessed with additional units as the be all and end all of housing policy than previous, it does reiterate the commitment to build 300,000 homes a year. That feels right to me: dropping the supply target would send the wrong signal, but moving the focus towards housing quality, placemaking and regeneration is surely right.
- The UK Government will also increase the amount of social housing available over time to provide the most affordable housing to those who need it. This will include reviewing how to support councils to deliver greater numbers of council homes, alongside Housing Associations. The UK Government will also ask Homes England to play a wider role in supporting mayors and local authorities to realise their ambitions for new affordable housing and regeneration in their areas.’ p.224
- Scrapping the ‘80/20 rule’, which required 80% of housing/infrastructure funding to go to the richer parts of the country.
- ‘Homes England… will be repurposed to, in addition to its existing functions, regenerate towns and cities.’ Also support for High Street Heritage Action Zones,
- Councils to get ‘power to require landlords of empty shops to fill them if they have been left vacant for too long.’ This is a positive intention, and vital to tackle dereliction and neglect on high street, but I’d definitely want to see the detail on this, as it’s not an easy issue to resolve. It was interesting there was no mention of the proposed Right to Regenerate that was consulted on last year.
- Alongside the existing £9m UK-wide Levelling Up Parks Fund which provides direct grants to deliver over 100 green spaces in the communities with the lowest access, a new £30m parks fund will deliver up to £1m to at least 30 local parks in England for refurbishment with an emphasis on facilities for young families.’
- The government will ‘explore provisions around compulsory purchase powers and support for brownfield land.’ Another vital ‘hidden lever’ that has been in every strategy and manifesto for years, but has yet to see the light of day.
- Consultation on what to use £880m of Dormant Assets Dormant Assets for, including ‘a community wealth fund, youth and social investment.’
- As part of the UK Government’s plans to reform the way the public sector procures services it will improve transparency, provide greater flexibility and put greater emphasis on social value, as discussed further in Chapter 2. New reforms will include awarding contracts on the basis of Most Advantageous Tender, encouraging a greater consideration of social value across the c.£300bn of public procurement contracts. (p. 216)
- As part of a forthcoming strategy for community spaces and relationships, the Government ‘will consider how the existing Community Asset Transfer and Asset of Community Value Schemes can be enhanced, and consult on options to go further to support community ownership…’ and will identify the policies and actions needed to strengthen community infrastructure.
- There’s a promise ‘to develop other “supporting metrics” using Office for National Statistics data. Local and central government departments will use these to track progress on the 2030 goals’
- The UK Government is spending over £200m this year and a total of £2bn across the Parliament on improvements for cycling and walking. Much of the new infrastructure will be in places where funding is most needed, from Blyth to Falmouth.’ The Gear Change strategy published in 2020 was genuinely impressive. Hopefully the recent, long-delayed launch of new executive agency Active Travel England, means it will actually happen.
- ‘At SR21, the UK Government announced City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements, with an investment package of £5.7bn for eight English city regions to transform local transport networks through London-style integrated settlements. These settlements will be similar to those established over the last two decades in London, creating a more devolved model of local transport funding and consolidating billions of pounds of new funding with existing funding for the Integrated Transport Block (ITB) and Highways Maintenance Block (HMB). This will simplify the funding landscape, increasing long-term funding certainty and giving city regions flexibility to develop long-term strategies.’
In sum: despite its flaws and gaps, there’s a fair bit in the White Paper that deserves support – and plenty more that we can work with in trying to secure meaningful reform.
Toby Lloyd, Chair of the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Left Behind Commission