Bolton Level up agenda; Bolton Level up agenda;

National agenda, local opportunity: how should places 'level up'?

As the UK government’s focus returns to domestic priorities, the administration’s levelling-up agenda appears to be both gaining definition and gathering momentum. Indeed, the policy is being talked-up in Whitehall as the central benchmark for how the government wishes to be judged. For places that have long dealt with structural challenges, like falling tourism or the loss of manufacturing or industrial employment, there is hope that this is finally an opportunity for these towns to find a new role, in an increasingly competitive global economy.  

An understandable first question facing local government leaders and metro Mayors, is how best to prepare, participate and benefit. In the last decade different administrations have launched a variety of funds – there is the Housing Infrastructure Fund, Future High Streets Fund, Towns Fund, Transforming Cities Fund and, most recently, the Levelling Up Fund itself. There has also been a raft of ‘deals’ – aimed at growth, devolution, sectors, freeports, cities and towns. 

To navigate this complex landscape, and drawing on our recent experience working with local leaders as part of England’s Towns Fund, we have identified three vital, initial phases to a successful programme: discover, organise, and plan.  

1 – Discover: look locally and beyond

Of course, every place faces different issues. Ramsgate has different needs to Rotherham. So it’s important to take a rigorous and tailored approach which will help leaders to define clear objectives and meet the varied challenges of, for example, decarbonisation and post-Covid recovery. To bring focus, it’s helpful to hone in on three or four really resonant local issues, and relevant metrics, as you begin to build your case for investment. But how do you do this properly? 

Listening to local leaders is key. In our work to make the case for the East Midlands Development Corporation, leaders told us that any new local growth had to produce opportunities for all. Our baseline study reinforced this need, finding that as many as a quarter of jobs in some local areas were vulnerable to automation, highlighting a pressing need to secure long-term jobs and skills for local people. This priority became the driving force behind subsequent work.  

You also need to understand the wider policy landscape and increasingly this means thinking at different scales. For instance, the government clearly wants its levelling-up agenda to dovetail with its national net zero carbon ambitions. That will favour certain interventions and may rule others out. At the most local scale, any plan still has to work within local planning priorities, business need and community preferences.  

In reality these are useful constraints; they help bring definition and rigour to the vision stage that will be at the base of any successful programme. Think big, think different, but think local at the same time. 

Helpfully, much of the insight that local leaders need already exists in the community – it’s just a case of reaching out and engaging in an effective way. This is hugely challenging during a pandemic, so new approaches have had to be developed rapidly, such as our virtual consultation rooms for Grimsby, which helped to bring a new dimension to community engagement. Effective engagement will not only ensure you bring people with you during will what will be a long journey, but taking a human-centred approach to the design of interventions provides a valuable way of deciding between what is likely to be a long local wish-list of projects.

2 – Organise: finding the right collaborators

Clearly, the right mix of contributors and viewpoints is key. Existing initiatives like the Towns Fund require places to set up boards. Our experience in working with the Fund’s 101 towns suggests the partnerships between the private and public sector with community stakeholders have added a richness to towns’ visions and will support the development and delivery of transformational projects.  

Other places shouldn’t wait to see whether similar structures will be put in place as part of the levelling up agenda. Instead, it’s important to recognise that you need a mix of community, public, commercial and academic voices to shape the opportunity in a grounded way. High street regeneration projects tend to be most successful when a major anchor tenant is involved from the outset, both providing insight and providing a halo effect to attract new commercial partners, this pattern is replicated in the creation of innovation with collaboration between larger and smaller businesses. 

Getting those people round the table is one thing; getting the best out of them is the real challenge. For many of the most important players, initiatives like Town Fund will sit outside the day job. This makes their roles no less critical, but does mean there need to be clear expectations around ways of working, particularly for commercial partners. Local MPs are another important partner, and increasingly act as interpreters of central government’s funding agenda and preferences. With the right balance of people, competencies and goals, you can move forward.   

The places that have organised best have done it early. Trafford Council, for example, established an effective commercial partnership and made critical land acquisitions to start the process of revitalising Stretford town centre. This meant that when the Future High Streets Fund came along, the Council was already in prime position to submit a strong proposal which, with Arup’s support, was successful in securing £18m for enabling infrastructure works.  

3 – Planning: an inspiring (and achievable) vision

The next and biggest step, is to define the vision. All of the actual planning must be rooted in and flow from an agreed, practical yet inspiring shared vision. The vision scopes out all your interventions, it prioritises and sequences them, preparing you for the delivery phase, bringing stakeholders along for the ride, allowing projects to be owned by the ecosystem in which they sit. A well-articulated vision provides a bedrock under the programme, and it will help leaders to stay focused on the outcomes a place truly needs. 

It’s important to think hard and critically about the long list of interventions the vision phase generates – don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, as the saying goes. Earlier analytical work will have established which ideas hold most value. Of course, the politics of this process have to be managed. Certain stakeholders will have long-held project goals, but it’s important not to water down the vision. A central principle should be ‘does this intervention cohere with what we know about the way people live and work?’ Indeed, the strength of your case with central government might depend on demonstration of that breadth of benefit and social value.  

Two examples among our work are instructive. First, Meridian Water in north London, where Enfield Council defined their vision with the required clarity: they wanted to deliver a new London district comprising 10,000 homes and thousands of jobs. The Council took an active role in delivering a new mainline station, recently opened, and acquiring strategic sites. This meant it was primed for investment from the Housing Infrastructure Fund, which with Arup support it duly secured to the tune of £156m. Second, Grimsby, where our work as part of the Towns Fund programme helped shape a town centre vision and masterplan. This provided a ‘guiding mind’ against which individual projects were identified and developed, ensuring measures related strongly to the specific funding opportunities and the outcomes being sought. Two very different places – but the same message of staying true to a strong vision.

Whatever else you do, start now

Amid all the unanswered questions surrounding the levelling-up agenda, one thing is clear: don’t wait. The scale of the opportunity is becoming clearer daily; being ready, organised and integrated with potential partners will lead to local advantage. For everyone involved there is an opportunity to transform ‘levelling up’ from a hopeful slogan into workable plans for much-needed change. 

Article written by Jack Stevens and Zach Wilcox