North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Levelling up missions ‘will not reduce regional inequality’ – report

The 12 targets set by the government for measuring the success of its levelling-up policy will not reduce regional inequality, according to a new report.

The Institute for Government (IfG) finds that only four of the targets – or ‘missions’ to be achieved by 2030 – are clear, ambitious and have appropriate metrics. The other eight, it says, all need to be recalibrated if they are to deliver on the government’s promises to level up the UK. 

‘Most of the missions are poorly calibrated because they do not set the right objectives, provide clear direction, or show the right level of ambition’, says the IfG. ‘The missions are designed to set ambitious but realistic targets to inspire action across government, the private sector and civil society. At present, most do not do this.’

(Some of the targets listed below fall into more than one category)

  • Five targets, according to the IfG, are not ambitious enough, in some cases because they would probably be reached anyway. The five are those dealing with pay and productivity, R&D, skills, wellbeing and crime.
  • Three are said to be too ambitious to be realistic – those covering living standards, education and devolution.
  • Four targets do not define what success would look like, making it difficult to assess progress – those covering living standards, transport, wellbeing and pride in place.
  • One target, for R&D spending, says the IfG, ‘does not align with the overall objective of levelling up to reduce regional disparities.’

The four targets that do not come in for criticism in the report are those for digital connectivity, healthy life expectancy, housing and (confusingly) crime.

DEVOLUTION

The devolution mission states that every region of the UK that wants one should have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution by 2030. The White Paper identifies 11 areas that will initially be considered for a new or deeper devolution deal.

Two of those 11 are a county deal for Durham and an expanded North East deal covering the six councils in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. However, warns the IfG report:

‘Even just to finalise those 11 deals by 2030 will be difficult. Precedent shows that it takes time and resources to negotiate these deals, and the UK government has only limited capacity to do so: between 2014 and 2020 the government negotiated nine deals with mayoral combined authorities and two non-mayoral devolution deals, but not all of these were to devolve powers to the levels put forward in the White Paper.

‘Furthermore, rushing the process does not give local areas enough time to build trusting and effective local partnerships, engage in detail with the complex negotiations and involve the public in discussions.

‘This target will then become even less achievable if much of the rest of England that is not covered by existing or new deals (around 50% of the population) also want to negotiate a deal of their own.’

This is worse than this website realised. We have been assuming, first, that having seen what they are missing through not having a devolution deal, including hundreds of millions in transport funding, North East council leaders had pretty much accepted, if reluctantly, the need for a deal; and secondly that the deal would be signed, sealed and delivered in time for a mayoral election in May 2024.

But that date no longer looks so easy to achieve, particularly in a region where there is a lot of work to do to build trust and effective local partnerships and involve the public in discussions, as the IfG suggests quite correctly is necessary. And the longer it takes the region’s leaders to get their act together the further into the distance a deal appears to recede.

As the IfG report suggests that the queue for a deal might be long and slow-moving, this could mean the North East will still be waiting as 2030 approaches. That would mean 14 wasted years without the benefits of devolution since the old North East Combined Authority made its disastrous decision in 2016 to reject a deal and split the region as a result.

If the region’s councils want a deal – and no one outside their secretive conclaves really knows whether they do or not – they had better get a move on or there will be little or no time left. They should use the council elections only a few weeks away to make a start on the process of building public support.