Government unveils ‘transformative levelling up’ plan: Will it achieve anything?

Today, the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove will unveil the government’s flagship Levelling Up White Paper. This document will set out a plan to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of it. Business Leader investigates what it really means for the UK economy.

What is on the White Paper?

The White Paper will set out a complete ‘system change’ of how government works that will be implemented to level up the UK.

In a statement from the government, it read: “At the heart of this new way of making and implementing policy will be 12 bold, national missions – all quantifiable and to be achieved by 2030. These missions are the policy objectives for levelling up, and thus form the heart of the government’s agenda for the 2020s.

“These missions will be cross-government, cross-society efforts. The first mission, for instance, will see pay, employment, and productivity grow everywhere, and the disparities between the top and worst performing areas narrow. This is the first time a government has placed narrowing spatial economic disparities at the heart of its agenda before.

“The Research & Development (R&D) mission will see domestic public R&D investment outside the Greater South East increase by at least 40% by 2030, with these funds leveraging a huge increase in private investment in these areas too.”

According to the report, by 2030, other missions will see the rest of the country’s local public transport systems becoming much closer to London standards; the large majority of the country gain access to 5G broadband; and illiteracy and innumeracy in primary school leavers effectively eliminated – focussing the government’s education efforts on the most disadvantaged parts of the country.

Other missions will see: hundreds of thousands more people completing high quality skills training every year, gross disparities in healthy life expectancy narrowed, the number of poor quality rented homes halved, the most run down town centres and communities across the country rejuvenated, a significant decrease in serious crime in the most blighted areas, and every part of England getting a ‘London-style’ devolution deal if they wish to.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said: “The United Kingdom is an unparalleled success story. We have one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic economies. Ours is the world’s most spoken language. We have produced more Nobel Prize winners than any country other than America. But not everyone shares equally in the UK’s success. For decades, too many communities have been overlooked and undervalued. As some areas have flourished, others have been left in a cycle of decline. The UK has been like a jet firing on only one engine. Levelling Up and this White Paper is about ending this historic injustice and calling time on the postcode lottery. This will not be an easy task, and it won’t happen overnight, but our 12 new national levelling up missions will drive real change in towns and cities across the UK, so that where you live will no longer determine how far you can go.”

Will it empower other regions across the UK?

The government recognises that if it tries to level up the UK alone, it will fail. That is why the White Paper will detail the largest devolution of power from Whitehall to local leaders across England in modern times.

The government has acknowledged the strong local leadership mayors like Andy Street, Ben Houchen and Andy Burnham have shown, and wishes to replicate this success across England.

A statement read: “Fundamental to this ‘devolution revolution’ will be a new model for England with more mayors for those areas that want one. We will invite the first 9 areas to agree new county deals and seek to agree further MCA deals, extending devolution across England. The first 9 areas invited to begin negotiations will be Cornwall, Derbyshire & Derby, Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, Durham, Hull & East Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire & Nottingham, and Suffolk.

“The White Paper announces negotiations for a new Mayoral Combined Authority deal for York and North Yorkshire and expanded Mayoral Combined Authority deal for the North East, as well as negotiations for ‘trailblazer’ devolution deals with the West Midlands and Greater Manchester to extend their powers – with these deals acting as blueprints for other Mayoral Combined Authorities to follow.

“By 2030, every part of England that wishes to have a ‘London-style’ devolution deal will have one.

“The local devolution mission is relevant in England only, but the wider policy programme will see decentralisation of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to local areas in Scotland and Wales.”

Are these really radical changes?

The White Paper represents a long term plan to transform the UK, but it also sets out the first steps the government is taking to achieve this. Below are the targets for the government through this plan.

  • Boosting pay and productivity, especially in places where they are lagging
  • Spreading opportunities and improving public services, especially where they are weakest
  • Restoring local pride
  • Empowering local leaders

With the Government this morning releasing a 12 step outline of the levelling up whitepaper, there’s one essential step that particularly stands out – skills. The promise to allocate resources to high quality skills training is all well and good, but if the Government are to truly tackle geographical inequalities, they need to show a better understanding of the skills issues in individual areas and create more targeted upskilling plans.

John Rogers, Global VP, Faethm AI, has laid out the problems with a blanket approach to skills training, along with giving his advice on how the government can develop a plan that identifies specific skills needs across the UK and anticipates how they may change in reaction to new technology, such as automation and AI.

He comments: “This whitepaper gives us an insight into what ‘levelling up’ really means from a policy perspective. Infrastructure investment is undoubtedly essential to give Britain’s regions their fair shot at economic growth and prosperity, but funding skills training is key if the UK as a whole is to become a high skill, high wage economy.

“As it stands, technology adoption and innovation could exacerbate the divide between different regions of the country over the next 5 years, with differing impacts from area to area. For example, 13.5% of Wales’ workforce could be affected by the adoption of technology by manufacturing employers, while London is more likely to be affected by automation in the finance sector  – 19.5% of finance work has a high propensity to be automated and this is reflective of over 60,000 workers. Without targeted investment in reskilling those in affected roles, automation could lead to job losses, making the economic disparity in particular regions even more pronounced, or creating a surplus of workers with skillsets that are no longer in demand.

“Emerging technologies should benefit us all equally, wherever we live and whatever our livelihood. If we’re to truly ‘level up’ the UK economy, then the government must identify current and skills needs across the UK, anticipate its future needs as technology takes on previously human-based tasks, and invest in training affected employees so they can hone the skills needed to fill more in-demand roles. That way, our entire economy will continue to grow and develop sustainable job opportunity, rather than simply extending the status quo, creating pockets of unemployment and excessive competition for certain kinds of job.” 

Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO of City & Guilds Group discusses why she believes the whitepaper lacks substance.

She states: “If the Government truly wants to invest in and drive forward a levelling up agenda, they need to not just create job opportunities, but ensure that people have the right skills to do them. Our Great Jobs research, launched today, finds that the industries that keep our country running are already at risk of collapse, crippled by labour and skills gaps – from construction and food production to health and social care. From speaking directly to the UK workforce, we know that people are put off entering into these jobs due to a lack of the necessary skills and training, alongside low wages and inflexible working conditions.

“While education is a key pillar of the white paper, it still misses a vital point: that just focussing on schools and specialist sixth forms is not enough. People entering the workforce today will most likely be working fifty years, and the skills they have at 18 or 21 will most likely need a significant update throughout their careers. Access to high quality adult education and skills development is imperative to creating the skilled people needed to do the jobs available – both now and in the future.

“To support its levelling up rhetoric, the Government needs to provide additional funding to level up access to all ages education and promote the value of the jobs the pandemic proved were essential to the running of our society. The bottom line is that only when the government puts adequate investment into flexible lifelong training opportunities, making jobs more attractive and tackling the mismatch between supply and demand, will the country be able to get back on an even keel.”

Will this really help UK SMEs?

Paul Christensen, CEO of British AI-payment fintech Previse, reactes to the UK Government’s Levelling Up White Paper.

When SMEs form 99% of the UK private sector and account for over three-fifths of total employment, it is clear that addressing their liquidity challenges must form a central role in the government’s levelling up agenda.

Unlike large corporates which have the financial firepower to adapt to rising inflation, the increasingly hostile trading environment is pushing small businesses to breaking point. Measures in the Levelling Up White Paper such as the Shared Prosperity Fund do not go far enough in solving the very real cash flow problems that SMEs face – like long payment timeframes and low accessibility to finance.

Failure to tackle these challenges risks thousands of businesses closures, taking with them jobs and investment which are needed more than ever as the economy seeks to ‘level up’.

Agata Nowakowska, AVP EMEA at Skilsoft expands on this, with regards to the impact on the digital economy.

Rapidly changing business models have had a profound impact on the learning and talent landscape in recent years, and even more so with the onset of Covid-19. With the skills crisis intensifying, it is great to see that the government is committing to providing more high-quality skills training in their latest ‘Levelling up’ initiative.

Today’s digital economy, characterised by change, requires an agile workforce that is able to keep pace. This means developing employees that help build innovative solutions to existing problems and share new ideas to keep business moving. When it comes to building skills for the future, technology training must be frequent and refreshed, instilled in a culture of lifelong learning.

Digital technology is making it possible for people to access learning content at a faster, more efficient and cost effective rate than ever before. However, while the content is key, true learning can only be achieved when richness and depth of experience is delivered through the content directly to the user. This requires a learning platform that delivers personalised recommendations, gamification and badging, embedded tools for access within workflows, and pathways for building durable skills that adapt with the needs of individuals. Ultimately, investing in training tools that keep pace with the changing environment, ensures organisations are best prepared for the future.