Tag Archives: levelling up

Digital skills

Adult Education: A Model for Devolution?

GK Adviser Rebecca McMahon explores the localisation of adult education and whether it could provide a template for devolution plans in other policy areas.

A rare win for the Levelling Up agenda?

Over the last 13 years, a series of Conservative governments have made various stabs at improving regional inequalities, and by the time of the Levelling Up White Paper 2022, there was a consensus that at least some form of devolution is necessary to heal regional divides and accelerate British growth.

However, plenty of obstacles remain in the way of a strong devolved power system in the UK, stemming both from central government (particularly due to reservations held by the Treasury) and local government (whose various financial difficulties over the last year have undermined their case for greater responsibility over policy and fiscal decision-making.) Plus, recent high-profile blows to the Levelling Up agenda – notably the collapse of the multi-billion HS2 project at the end of last year – have created further setbacks.

However, one of the more successful devolution efforts has materialised in the seemingly unexpected domain of adult skills. The Government kickstarted the devolution of the Adult Education Budget in the 2019-20 academic year, transferring decision-making powers over the pot of money to six Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) plus the Greater London Authority (GLA).

Since then, a further three MCAs have been handed these powers, and the trend of devolution suggests that more deals are to take place in the near future. The success of ‘trailblazer’ deals in Greater Manchester and West Midlands makes this more likely. The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, confirmed that the North East MCA would also receive a deal as part of the continued ‘Skills for Growth’ agenda.

Labour’s thinking on Adult Education

Central to Labour’s skills agenda is the replacement of the Apprenticeship Levy with the Growth and Skills Levy. Notionally, this points to a more flexible skills and training landscape, with accommodation for all types of learners.

However, some people have expressed concern about the sustainability of this proposal, suggesting that an altered levy would be a step in the wrong direction for apprenticeship uptake, at a time when other viable further education alternatives seem more important than ever. In terms of devolution, Labour have made a lot of noise about their commitment to the cause, threading it through various ‘missions’ upon which they have built their policy agenda, and publishing high-profile reviews by legacy figures like Gordon Brown which showcase their support. But in practice, the landscape is less certain, owing to Rachel Reeves’ fiscal ‘iron fist.’ Given the pressure that the Shadow Chancellor placed on Keir Starmer to backtrack on their flagship £28bn pledge to the green economy, she will be hesitant to hand over budgetary responsibilities to local authorities given their recent track record on finances.

The increasing localisation of adult education budgets in the UK somewhat offers a model for the Government and potential future governments to further the devolution agenda. However, any party will inevitably face a gamble on whether to trust local authorities with increasingly large pots of money and whether this will ultimately reap long-term rewards.

Is levelling up a Conservative priority again, and what should Labour do about it?

GK Associate Sam Tankard analyses the recent announcement from Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, on the Government’s plans to boost urban regeneration and kickstart new development, and what we can understand from the Labour Party’s response. 

Michael Gove announced this week a long overdue relaxation of planning rules to boost urban regeneration, bringing life back into the Government’s neglected commitment to levelling up the UK. The plans include setting up more than a dozen new development corporations, that would be able to use compulsory purchase orders to boost building and attract investment, akin to the hugely successful regeneration of the London Docklands. It will also relax permitted development rights, making it easier for disused office buildings to be converted to residential, all of which should come as a welcome package of policies for developers, businesses, and aspiring homeowners alike, all keen to see the densification of key cities.

One of the flagship examples announced to bring forward new homes, is the proposal for a new Cambridge Urban Quarter. The Quarter is designed to couple gentle density seen in many European cities and parts of London, with improved landscaping and infrastructure, with the aim of unlocking investment in the city’s growth areas of life sciences and tech R&D. This is something the city has sorely missed out on over recent years, while international competitors like Boston have soared ahead.

Indeed, this set of policies is shrewdly targeted at voters most at risk of fleeing the Conservative Party to the Liberal Democrats, demonstrated by recent by-elections in Conservative heartlands. By focusing the message on urban development, it focuses any future housing development in building up density in cities rather than urban sprawl into green space. This combines neatly with Sunak’s recent commitment to protecting the Green Belt around cities, and criticising Labour for the opposite.

However, the limitation of the Green Belt poses a much bigger problem for all stakeholders, having traditionally driven housebuilding in out-of-town developments instead of expanding cities themselves, therefore often encouraging urban sprawl further.

If properly implemented with the ambitious devolution agenda that has been set out, including 20 regeneration zones and investment zones, we could see the investment into the built environment required to really level up our industrial centres. Sunak will also hope it appeals to the middle of the road millennial voters who feel they are being priced out of cities, as well as those who oppose new homes due to lack of infrastructure.

What is Labour’s response?

This presents a significant challenge to Labour, who themselves are being urged to embrace a new levelling up agenda, which has so far been absent from Starmer’s Five Missions. However, Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy has openly committed to radical planning reform to boost building, including building on the Green Belt, restoring housing targets, and making social housing the second highest form of tenure. In response to Gove’s plans, Nandy has criticised the Government for offering more empty promises, and for overseeing housebuilding which is at the lowest rate since WWII. Importantly, however, levelling up goes beyond just housebuilding, and revolves significantly around investment into local public services, prioritising education and early years, as well as attracting and supporting businesses in growth areas.

Therefore, Labour needs to look to capitalise on the separation created between Conservatives and Labour on the issue of Green Belt development and be braver to articulate what is possible from a comprehensive levelling up programme. This programme must reflect the full suite of issues that comprise sustainable and equitable levelling up. This will not only present a more ambitious levelling up agenda that delivers on chronic housing supply issues, but also brings disillusioned renters with them.

gk Coronavirus reveals the unsustainability of the Government’s devolution dualism

What’s in store for the levelling up agenda now Liz Truss is Prime Minister?

GK Researcher, Tristan Robinson, investigates what’s in store for the levelling up agenda under the premiership of Liz Truss and whether tangible progress can be delivered before the next general election.  

What we know so far 

During the Conservative Leadership Contest, Liz Truss never truly went into detail as to how she’d take on levelling up under her premiership.  

She had often used the term levelling up in a “Conservative way” by focusing on tax cuts, deregulation, and devolution to boost growth. The recent not-so-’mini’ fiscal statement set out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, has given a clear indication that Liz Truss has kept with her mantra of governing in a ‘Conservative way’ – Trussonomics. The Chancellor gave no mention of levelling up in his speech but did announce the creation of new ‘investment zones’ in over 4o locations across the UK. It’s hoped that this would encourage businesses to invest by incentivising lower tax regulations and planning rules. If some of these new ‘investment zones’ were selected in areas such as Liverpool, Teesside, Newcastle and Grimsby, the financial benefits for the local areas could be significant.  

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands recently outlined his support for targeted Investment Zones whilst Mayor for Tees Valley Ben Houchen called it a ‘gamechanger‘ for areas such as Teesside, helping to rejuvenate town centres such as Hartlepool and creating new high-wage jobs. Yet, it remains unknown as to how long it will take for these zones to be implemented. In addition, there is a possibility of opposition from the Government’s own backbenchers who are concerned about losing their leafy rural seats that have long been opposed to development.  

Liz Truss has also pledged to reverse the decision to downgrade the Northern Powerhouse Rail project which links Liverpool with Hull, stretching across England. During the contest she did not commit to completing the HS2 Line between the East Midlands and Leeds. It is yet unknown whether she will go through with this decision and reverse the downgrade and commit to the Eastern Leg. She also committed to Northern Research Group pledge card that aims for further devolution, a Minister for the North with direct responsibility for local growth and levelling up, the equalising of the Levelling Up Formula and introduction of two new vocational institutions in the North of England.  

Levelling up is not just about infrastructure & transport, and Liz Truss has yet to go into detail on how she will help level up the UK by fixing the social disparities on matters such as quality of education, access to health care as well the quality of living between the North & South of England.  

Time is ticking…  

Liz Truss has not made levelling up her flagship policy for her administration, but rather tax cuts & deregulation. Whilst she has given an inkling as to what her approach would look like – such as introducing new investment zones & supporting the Northern Research Group pledge card – she has yet to give a detailed plan on what their levelling up agenda would look like or how long their proposals would take to implement.  

The immense cost to level up makes it near impossible to do anything substantial in a short time frame and with many Southern MPs concerned of losing their seats on the topic of development, illustrated with the impact of the 2021 Chesham & Amersham by-election which ultimately caused planning reforms to be ditched during Johnson’s premiership. Centre for Cities believes that to truly level up and close the North-South divide would cost £2 trillion and would take decades to implement long-term efficient policy. In truth, Liz Truss will have very little time to fulfil any substantial changes to the geographical disparities in the UK in under two years. The incoming winter crisis & the rising tensions with Russia will inevitability shift the focus away from levelling up just as Covid-19 had done for Johnson’s government.  

Labour’s Alternative 

Shadow Minster for Levelling Up, Lisa Nandy, introduced an alternative with a 5-point plan to level up the UK. Focusing on jobs, Labour wants to spread job opportunities across the UK by investing £28bn each year in green projects in industrial and coastal towns. The plan also wants to set off 100k new businesses to help local high streets, and includes fostering greater connectivity with towns and villages by investing in better transport and digital infrastructure, more devolution, and reintroducing neighbourhood policing to ensure town centres are safe. 

As Labour Conference rumbled on and Labour revealed more of its outlook in the run up to the next election, Labour’s Shadow’s Transport Secretary Louise Haigh offered a telling insight into Labour might tackle the problem of connectivity. Haigh promised not just to nationalise the railway system once more, but to build a Elizabeth Line for the North and deliver the Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 in full. Lisa Nandy also spoke at Labour Conference at an event with the Conservative-led thinktank Onward pledging to boost building of social housing and “finish the job” on rebuilding northern cities that was originally planned during the last Labour government.  

GK Strategy are experts in helping organisations to understand the changing political landscape, and strongly recommend that business leaders quickly meet with government to discuss their priorities. For more information, get in touch with scott@gkstrategy.com