The Week

The Week 5 April 2024

Giorgia Vittorino
Research Assistant

While most of the country recovers from an Easter egg-induced sugar rush, campaigning is well underway for the first of 2024’s two nation-wide elections. On May 2nd councillors will be elected in 107 local authorities across England, along with 11 directly elected regional mayors, London Assembly members, and dozens of police and crime commissioners. Here at Reform, we’re struck by the role that the ‘levelling up’ agenda is playing in a more locally focused policy debate than usual.

Launching his re-election effort, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has criticised Government levelling up plans for being too ‘top-down’, and failing to address “the shortcomings of the over-centralised British state,” with limited progress in devolving powers across housing, benefits and technical education.

One irony to note at this point is that the empowerment of Burnham’s Combined Authority, and many of the ambitions present in his manifesto, like the acceleration of GM Housing First, the Greater Manchester baccalaureate and ‘Live Well’, are themselves in part a product of this Government’s levelling up agenda, which provided the devolution framework and mission-like commitment to local leadership that resulted in GMCA’s ‘Trailblazer’ devolution deal.

Our assessment is that the Government’s target that “by 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal” is undoubtedly the most successful part of this agenda, with Manchester one of the biggest winners. This year, more regional mayors will run for election than ever before, with nine additional regions enacting devolution deals over 2024/25 and new mayors elected in York and North Yorkshire, the East Midlands and Norfolk.

Beyond devolution, the main mechanism for levelling up funding has been the creation of centrally controlled bid-in funding pots. This week a group of councils called for an independent review into the ‘begging bowl culture’ of this bidding process. As PAC reported last month, many levelling up projects have seen delays, with most of the 71 projects due to be completed by the end of March not on track to meet deadline.

Now The Guardian has weighed in on the progress of levelling up with a ‘report card’ on the 12 levelling up missions outlined in the 2022 white paper, reporting a mixed bag of progress with revealing conclusions on the areas for further devolution.

Some missions have achieved moderate success. For example, in transport, bus franchising across Manchester, West Yorkshire and Liverpool is highlighted.

However, the overall headline is that progress has been minimal, or even, in some areas, non-existent. Educational attainment and the disadvantage gap are lagging behind pre-COVID statistics. Uptake in adult skills courses is considerably lower than uptake in 2010. Progress in health equality has gone backwards, as according to recent ONS statistics, the divide in healthy life expectancy between the North-East and South-East has widened. If devolution and local leadership are a precondition for achieving progress in these areas, as in Greater Manchester, then there is clearly a case for going further, and faster.

In the week that Reform made the case for systematic health devolution, the strength and capacity of local and regional government to take on new responsibilities is becoming a potential bottleneck for decentralisation policy. The levelling up agenda, for all its flaws, and whatever its fate after the coming general election, has been an important part of the effort to rebalance power across England.

This week we’ve been reading…

Sticking with the localism theme, we enjoyed this piece from Reform advisory group member Professor Tony Travers in the Local Government Chronicle. Part of a series of LGC articles discussing the impact of the huge reorganisation of local government in the 1970s, Travers’s piece — which is exempted from the paywall — paints a picture of a system that has only increased in complexity in the decades since, despite what he sees as a deep desire for efficiency in the sector: “local authorities in the UK have far larger populations than almost any other country in the world … [and] it would be amazing if a new government … did not require the whole of England to have unitary authorities everywhere.” He ends up in the “ironic” and “painful” position of suggesting a full Royal Commission to settle questions on structures, powers, and finance.