North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Levelling up: no more chopping and changing

There have been more than 50 local growth policies initiated by governments since the 1980s in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to correct regional imbalances in the UK economy, of which the Levelling Up White Paper published on February 2 is just the latest. Yet the imbalances remain, and the North East suffers from them more than most.

The figure of more than 50 comes from Onward, a centre-right think tank, and is cited in an interview by Adam Payne with Andy Haldane*, who as head of the government’s Levelling Up Taskforce was part-author of the White Paper. The interview was published in the parliamentary magazine The House.

This reference to the number of past attempts over the decades to level up, under various labels, prompts a trip down memory lane for this author – if the reader will forgive the self-indulgence – but also has a serious point: that chopping and changing policy is the route to failure.

More than 50 policies since the 1980s is many more than even I, who have been living professionally in various capacities with attempts to level up the North East for almost 60 years, can recall.

My personal memory goes back to the Hailsham Plan of 1963, the year before I left school and started my first job as a trainee reporter on the Sunderland Echo. Hailsham – if memory serves – gave us the A19. Before that I remember that a car journey between Sunderland and Stockton took us down a winding road through the mining village of Ryhope, where I have ancestral roots, and Cold Heselden, and on through picturesque but driver-unfriendly Castle Eden Dene – now a national nature reserve.

Following Hailsham came Challenge of the Changing North, the 1967 plan produced by the Northern Economic Planning Council chaired by the Newcastle City Council leader T. Dan Smith. It was shelved by the government.

Ten years later followed the Strategic Plan for the Northern Region, produced by a team of independent experts, which I wrote about in my then role as a reporter on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle**. Re-reading my report 45 years later, several features of the Plan stick out:

First, the Plan was very focussed on economic development and job creation, with other issues of concern like housing, benefits and the environment taking second place. It recommended the right to buy for council house tenants several years before Margaret Thatcher’s government implemented that measure. The only (passing) reference I thought worth making to transport – now such a bone of contention between the government and northern leaders – was to write that, according to the Plan, both Newcastle and Teesside airports should continue to expand as necessary.

Secondly, it is notable what a different approach there was then to funding to today’s approach, with its twin demands by councillors for billions more government money and more local control over it. The 1977 Plan assumed that regional spending would actually continue to go down until the end of that decade and would then grow at an annual rate of only 1.5% in the 1980s.

The Plan was summed up in my final paragraph: ‘The Plan recommends a big increase in spending on industry and jobs, and some increase for rehabilitation of urban areas. But it recommends a big cut in total spending on housing. The changes would also mean that more of the cash spent in the region would be controlled in Whitehall and less in local town halls’.

I remember thinking at the time that the Strategic Plan for the Northern Region would be just another document for regional regeneration to be published with a flourish of enthusiasm in the North East only to disappear into a Whitehall pigeon hole, never to be heard of again. And that, I believe, is pretty much what happened. Certainly I don’t think it came to my attention again until I started studying regional development in another capacity 40 years later.

Following that personal excursion into regional history, it is necessary to complete the picture of recurring short-lived economic development plans by briefly mentioning just a few more.

Margaret Thatcher’s governments of the 1980s brought urban development corporations, which were principally place-based rather than economic growth initiatives and led to the renewal we see today on Newcastle Quayside, at Royal Quays, North Tyneside, and St Peter’s, Sunderland, as well as similar developments on Teesside and at Hartlepool; the Teesside Development Corporation was later criticised by the National Audit Office for financial irregularities.   

Urban development corporations were dissolved after Labour came to power in 1997 and the emphasis returned to economic growth with the establishment of nine regional development agencies (RDAs) in England including One North East, which produced two plans during its lifetime – Unlocking Our Potential (2001) and Leading the Way (2006).

The second of these had hardly had time to start being implemented when the financial crisis of 2008 resulted in a cut in funding for regional development, and then in 2010 RDAs were abolished by the new Coalition government. Regionalism was replaced by localism and 39 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) – since reduced to 38 – were created.

LEPs published their own ten-year strategic economic plans (SEPs) in 2014 as a basis for government funding, including the North East LEP’s SEP More jobs and Better Jobs and a corresponding document (updated in 2016) in what had now become known as Tees Valley. In 2018 SEPs were supplemented by local industrial strategies (LISs).

Within two years the relevance of LISs was being questioned, and little is now heard of them. A site search of the North East LEP website reveals nothing more recent than July 2018 when the region was reported to be one of those asked by the government to develop a LIS.

This historical background lends weight to Andy Haldane’s assertion in his interview with The House that if the Levelling Up White Paper is to succeed then it must survive changes of government and shifts in the political weather, or as he puts it: ‘the chopping, the changing and the endless upending of past initiatives,’ a culture of short-termism which he believes has consistently prevented effective policy making up to now.

The White Paper identifies 12 goals or ‘missions’ to be achieved by a target date of 2030. The first test of whether the levelling-up policy will survive long enough to reach that date and perhaps achieve its targets will come if there is a change of government at the 2024 general election. There is at least chance that it will, for Labour has not criticised the policy as such but complained that the money allocated is not enough.

*For transparency: Andy Haldane is chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, of which the author of this article is a Fellow.
**Newcastle Evening Chronicle, March 22, 1977.