‘Levelling up’ is a term regularly used, though its connotations are ambiguous, and many people are not really sure what it means.
I first encountered levelling up when I took on the responsibility as a Liverpool city councillor for all European Union (EU) funding. It was an amazing experience for a number of reasons.
The first was the amount of cash that we were being awarded by the European Union. It was given to Merseyside based on our economic and employment statistics. They were horrific.
Imagine whole streets where no one went out to go to work, where poverty was endemic, and children and young people faced a future without optimism.
History of accepting EU cash
Since the end of WW2, governments had invented short-term quick fixes that ran from election to election and then stopped. The exception to this way of working was Michael Heseltine who recognised the need for a long-term approach and created the Merseyside Development Corporation. It worked in a limited area but couldn’t make the difference that was needed elsewhere in Liverpool.
So, in 1992, as a councillor, I urged the council to accept EU funding that had been offered, but they refused. Things changed in 1994, when the first tranche of EU cash came to Merseyside. From then to now, some £2bn has come from the EU, which in addition then brought in the equivalent cash from the private and public sectors.
Through thousands of social, employment, training, entrepreneurial and structural projects, a new future for the city and Merseyside was created.
For most people, the figures are completely incomprehensible. We just do not understand what that kind of cash means or what it does.
EU support was more than just money
But it wasn’t just the money. The way that local people, councils, businesses, social enterprises, universities and community groups took the decisions are what made change possible.
Some politicians say that the EU tells people and governments what to do. Well, nothing could have been further from the truth. We, local people, looked at what was needed and then took decisions as to what to support.
Lessons for levelling up
Now, of course, Brexit has changed everything. But if our government are really committed to levelling up, there is a lot that could be learned from our EU experience.
The cash that we were given was not simply from election to election, but lasted for decades. We knew the money was going to be there, knew that we could plan for the future, knew that we could build over time, looking at the needs of our people, of our businesses, of our social enterprises and seeking to create better opportunities for them.
We could do that because every EU funding period lasted for six years, with an additional two years to complete programmes. The cash was in the bank. Secure, safe, committed.
During the course of those six years, work was being done on the following funding period, known as the multi-annual financial framework, something which I had a hand in shaping on more than one occasion.
There you go! Imagine a British local politician having a hand in shaping the national budget, not through grace and favour, but as a given right.
And so we were in a position thanks to the EU, where we had time to plan, with cash guaranteed and could make significant decisions.
Could that happen now? There would have to be significant change in the way government operates:
- Short termism
In our country, the short-term approach to everything from budgets to investments to decision making creates problems. The EU recognises that and it operates accordingly.
It makes a difference.
We need to look at how we engage communities, businesses and universities. We need to bring them into the process as active participants, not just as recipients of government diktat.
- Local authorities
Instead of handing down what the government believes local authorities’ role should be, why not engage local authorities actively in the national decision making and law making process. Listen to those who have to make the system work rather than impose your view.
Stop working from one annual budget to another. Look at the longer term.
- The people thing!
The levelling up agenda can’t just be for those who went to Balliol College, Oxford – it has to empower people. It must enable, not confine. The government needs to do some thinking here about how it can bring local people to the table, not how it dictates.
It needs to look at how it can actively involve them in decision making and forward planning processes. Why? Well, frankly, Westminster doesn’t know best! The people who do know best experience what is happening in their localities and to local people.
Listen, learn and bring in people who really do know what they’re doing and you can make a big difference.
Enable organisations like social enterprises to thrive, which will create new business opportunities, training and jobs.
Enable proper training and real learning, not just a Gradgrind approach to education that says you must know this, or you must go to university or you are a failure. Education needs to be meaningful.
So how might this happen?
The first thing would be that in those areas where levelling-up is considered a priority a group is formed of local councils, businesses, education partners, perhaps universities or colleges, and those who are actually active in local communities. They should look at their situation and examine what is needed to improve opportunity and increase economic activity.
When the government has taken note of the research done, it looks and sees how much it can spend and for how long it is going to guarantee that funding. Guarantee being the operative word.
New opportunities for women and young people can come through social enterprises that can build skills and businesses.
If we are really serious about making a difference, then let’s learn from the EU’s cohesion policy. It works.
Having your say
Finally, perhaps it’s time for the government to set up something like the Committee of the Regions here in the UK that would enable local politicians to come together to look at proposed legislation, to evaluate it and to make suggestions as to how it can be improved.
Were that to happen then a lot could change and change for the better.
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