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Professor Graeme Atherton, Head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London takes a closer look at the new Levelling Up White Paper and what it might mean for levelling up the most ‘left behind’ communities.

Like a much-anticipated album, when the White Paper on Levelling Up was published this week meeting the expectations attached to it was hard. It didn’t help that it contained a lack of new policies and new funding was hard to find. Nevertheless, its breadth was impressive and there was a genuine attempt to get to grips with the multi-dimensional nature of geographical inequality through 12 cross-cutting missions.

Within this, a strong narrative focused on people, place, pride and empowering local communities are promising and chime with much of the research and insight from our work at the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up and the work of the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. But this breadth and its reliance on policies led mainly by other departments mean much will need to be done if the missions identified in the paper are to be achieved.

The early analysis of the White Paper we have conducted shows that – while little new financial commitments are in evidence – over £250 billion of government spend is linked to levelling up through commitments in the White Paper. This includes both monies already being spent and future allocated funding. It will be a significant task to ensure this spend relates to the specific levelling up missions and supports communities who are experiencing the greatest social and economic challenges, for example those identified through the work of the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

Approximately £250 billion of investment is also spread across more than 130 different policies covering everything from sport to green travel and defence.

Again, bringing a laser like focus in the implementation of these policies to levelling up will require a well-developed and funded system of metrics, accountability, and management.

Despite the vast range of policy areas covered there are also some that deserve further attention. Our recent publication ‘Levelling Up: What is it and can it work?’, which features an article from Local Trust and was supported by the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, highlighted the importance of childcare and early years; insecure work and workers’ rights, the role of civil society and higher education to levelling up. Manufacturing and the welfare system could be added to these vital policy areas – the present cost of living crisis only demonstrating again how levelling up cannot happen when millions are living in poverty, either when on benefits or in work.

The policy areas that are covered will need to be combined with greater devolution and a well-resourced approach to co-ordination if they are to achieve the levelling up missions. A significant portion of the White Paper is devoted to the question of devolution and the commitment to extending the powers of those at the metropolitan level is significant.

However, while the idea of ‘hyper devolution’ is mentioned commitment to this idea is a lot thinner. Concerningly, in the devolution framework outlined only three out of 23 functions are devolved to local authorities. In terms of co-ordination there will be a Levelling Up Advisory Board, whose members have already been appointed, which will be supported by regional Levelling Up Directors and a series of expert sub-committees. Whether this will be enough to harness the power of these many policies and focus them on levelling up remains to be seen. It is crucial that the government adopts an open process in how it constructs these committees to try and engage the best organisations it can from across civil society in particular.

Levelling up must be a shared, collaborative endeavour if it is to succeed and should also be targeted at the communities that need the most support.

The government is keen to show how all areas of the country are benefitting from investment related to levelling up whilst emphasising it is about addressing geographical inequality. This is a hard circle to square. The limited resources allocated to levelling up means that prioritisation will be essential, but the White Paper isn’t explicit about which areas should benefit most from– although it is clear it certainly isn’t London.

The White Paper is meant to show that levelling up is mission critical to this government and the amount of its policy agenda now relating to levelling up goes some way to demonstrating this. However, the lack of new money or policies and commitment to even greater devolution, together with the absence of things it doesn’t like or sees as to hard to handle could risk making levelling up mission impossible.