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The Government’s white paper on ‘levelling up’ has been welcomed, but there are concerns that there is not the funding or planning to back up an ambitious agenda.
The Government’s white paper on ‘levelling up’ has set up 12 legally binding national missions to be achieved by 2030 as well as calling for a system change to back this up rather than a string of short-term initiatives.
They include plans to increase pay, employment and productivity across UK and to decrease the gap between the wealthiest and poorest areas and ensure every region has “a globally competitive city”.
Other missions focus on everything from education and public transport to wellbeing and crime as well as a big emphasis on devolution of power, backed by a simplified long-term funding settlement.
On health, there is a pledge to narrow the healthy life expectancy gap so that the average health life expectancy rises by five years by 2035. There is a pledge to significantly increase access to high quality training with a target of 200,000 more people accessing it in England, 80,000 from the lowest skilled areas.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies welcomed the white paper, saying it was a “welcome first step” and that the missions look “sensible, if a little reminiscent of previous attempts to narrow geographic disparities, and in places perhaps overly ambitious”. It highlights the focus on education, skills, health and transport connectivity as well as the range of metrics by which progress and success can be judged.
However, it says there is little evidence of the funding and planning needed to deliver on the missions.
IFS director Paul Johnson stated: “This white paper recognises the scale of the levelling up challenge. That lack of quick fixes, the long term perspective, and clarity about objectives are all very welcome, as is the recognition that real progress will require a change in governance in Whitehall and beyond.
“This is all just a very first step though. The targets are largely in the right areas, but many look extremely ambitious – that is to say highly unlikely to be met, even with the best policies and much resource. There is little detail on how most of them will be met, and less detail on available funding. There is something for everyone, and hence little sense of prioritisation: ambition and resource will be spread very thin.
“Meeting the core ambition of simultaneously improving education and skill levels and availability of high paying jobs in poorer regions will prove extremely challenging. Without that, levelling up will not happen. It will require the level of focus that has gone into this white paper being developed and maintained over decades.”
The paper does include some funding pledges, including £100m of investment for innovation centres to boost research and development in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow and a £1.5bn fund for new homes mostly outside London and the South-East. However, the Policy Exchange think tank says few of the funding commitments are additional to what was outlined in the 2021 Spending Review.
The International Longevity Centre said it is vital that an ambitious focus on preventative health must be at the heart of the levelling up health agenda. David Sinclair, Director of the ILC-UK, said: “This will need behavioural incentives, as well as regulation and greater investment in the areas that need it most. We need to heed the lessons from the pandemic, continue to work with communities and the expanded care workforce and use data and technology to improve health outcomes for all.”
He added that lifelong learning should also be a priority, saying: “There’s currently a mismatch between the skills we have and the skills our economy needs. 2.7 million jobs will be created in the UK by 2030. However, at the same time, the UK workforce is ageing rapidly, which could leave 2.6 million jobs unfilled by 2030 – almost double the workforce of the NHS. To plug this gap, we need to ensure that the opportunity to learn is open to all. Age discrimination must not prevent people from continuing to develop their skills throughout their lives. And most importantly, we need to make sure that we design jobs that people want and can do for as long as they wish.”
Meanwhile, childcare campaigners were concerned that the commitment on education made no mention of early years and called for more investment. Neil Leitch from the Early Years Alliance said: “The Government’s levelling up white paper rightly acknowledges that ‘children’s early experiences affect lifelong physical and emotional health,’ which means that ‘all children and families need to be able to access high quality early years education’.
“It is absurd, therefore, that the paper should fail to make a single mention of any new investment into early education and care, while still suggesting that the government’s plans will achieve substantial improvements in children’s educational attainment.”