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‘Public consultation and transparency key in levelling up’ – report

Levelling up is popular in principle but raises many questions about the what and the how, with community involvement a key factor, according to a new report on public perceptions of the government’s agenda for the left-behind.

‘With regards to developing plans for investment, the involvement of local political actors tends to increase support for a policy proposal’, says the report by UK in a Changing Europe (UKCE) and the Policy Institute*

‘For example, if councils were involved in developing a proposal, our respondents were roughly seven percentage points more likely to support it. Support from a local MP also tended to bolster support for policy proposals somewhat, by around four percentage points.

‘However, the largest effect upon proposal support was observed for the involvement of the local community. Proposals which provided for community consultation were eleven percentage points more popular than those without. Our focus groups were similarly enthusiastic about the prospect of community involvement in the implementation of levelling up policies. Participants mentioned a variety of potential mechanisms, including surveys, online consultations and town hall meetings.’

The report adds: ‘Community consultation and full transparency are key. Strikingly, whether or not the local community is consulted on a project, and the transparency of the process, matters just as much to respondents as the amount of money that is spent on a levelling up project.’

The UKCE report is one of two new studies of levelling up. The other, by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP), Atkins, a design, engineering and project management consultancy, and Durham University, sees a big role for business in levelling up.

CRIME AND HEALTH

The UKCE report makes the point that for all the discussion about levelling up and regional inequality, little energy has been expended in finding out how people feel about their areas, what could and should be done to improve them, and who they trust to actually do it.

The report, says UKCE, aims to fill this gap. It is based on focus groups in five deprived areas, including Blyth, Northumberland, and what is said to be a unique survey of 20,000 people in different parts of England, including the North East. Most respondents agreed that there should be some redistribution of income from ‘better off’ to ‘worse off’ areas, regardless of age, level of education, or social grade.

‘However, redistributive policy is much more popular amongst Labour voters than Conservatives. This strong partisan divide raises the question of whether redistributive policy — and action to tackle regional inequality — is natural territory for a Conservative Government.

‘Furthermore, over half of respondents believe that their local area gets significantly less government spending and investment than it deserves (this is felt most strongly in the north of England – particularly the North East and North West). Conservative voters, however, are divided: those in the south of England are much more likely to believe that the north gets its fair share of funding.’

Crime reduction and access to good quality healthcare are the public’s two top priorities, though there are variations across the country, including between urban and rural areas. Perhaps surprisingly, says the report, the totemic issues of jobs and shops were some way down the list of priorities,

‘Strikingly, policies falling within the scope of central government — crime and health — tend to be seen as more important than those for which local leaders are responsible, such as improving access to shops’, it says.

‘There is a suggestion here that the things people think would most improve their areas are the responsibility of national government and might be better tackled through a broader project of national renewal of public services than through smaller, targeted schemes for individual local areas.’

The report found that the public has low levels of trust in English political institutions in general. ‘Only around a third of people express trust in mayors, local MPs and councils. The figures for national government are far lower.

‘However, respondents were more likely to believe their elected representatives care about their area and to trust them if they voted for that party. Partisanship, in other words, still has a significant impact on faith and trust in politics.

‘In general, people are inclined to believe that those in positions of political authority do not care about their area. Yet the more local the level of representation, the more likely people are to believe political leaders do care. Those felt to care most were local councillors. Yet, even here, over 50% of respondents did not believe even these elected representatives cared.’

Ben Houchen, Mayor of Tees Valley, was found to be the metro mayor thought to most care about their local area amongst voters. However, only 45% of respondents in his mayoralty shared this opinion. The highest reported level of trust was in Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester.

In spite of the level of distrust in politicians, the UKCE survey found that: ‘When it came to public versus private investment, projects delivered solely via public sector construction and maintenance were around seven percentage points more popular than those using private contractors.’

PRIVATE SECTOR

The other new report by the NPP, Atkins and Durham University – Transport, Health and Skills are Top Priorities for Levelling Up, Say Northern Leaders – is based on 18 direct interviews with senior leaders in the north, as well as more than 100 responses to an online survey.

It finds that while essential funding and facilitation will come from central government, northern leaders recognise that long term gains (especially in productivity and the creation of jobs) should come from the private sector.’

There is said to be a high degree of confidence that businesses will deliver and 95% of respondents said that ‘private businesses are key to achieving planned infrastructure projects.’

‘While no single issue dominates,’ says the report, ‘many talked about the need to “level up people”, and skills and the future workforce was most commonly selected (45%) as a current challenge – with 18% selecting it as their top challenge – followed by inequalities (38%), health and wellbeing (35%) and transport (35%).

While greater devolution was popular among those interviewed, local powers to raise taxes were viewed as more difficult politically.

The research, according to the authors, also shows that while appetite for the term ‘levelling up’ itself has waned, the principle behind it commands wide support.

Richard Robinson, Atkins UK and Europe CEO, said: ‘Improving transport links and systems helps unlock economic opportunity by improving the connection between growing and struggling economic hubs. With infrastructure we help create better and more efficient places for people to live and work in, mindful of the impact the built environment can have on social behaviours, health and well-being.’

Kieran Fernandes, Durham University Business School, said: ‘Regional rebalancing has been a long-held aspiration of consecutive UK governments and a long-held need for the north of England. The research, which has been inspired by the government’s recent levelling-up agenda, is timely, informative, and impactful.

‘It is timely because it comes at a moment where there is increased attention to the inequalities between the economies and living standards of the north and the south.  It is informative because it illustrates where these differences lie and what the region’s key decision makers think about them.  Finally, it is impactful because it provides clear and unequivocal evidence of the urgent need for investment in the region’s physical and digital infrastructure as a medium for bridging inequalities and enhancing economic and social progress.’

COMMENT

The publication of two reports on levelling up simultaneously reveals significant differences of view about what it is and how it should be delivered.

Most strikingly, the UKCE survey found that the public’s two top priorities were crime reduction and access to good quality healthcare. The NPP report found transport, health and skills are the most important issues.

Secondly, the UKCE found that most members of the public wanted levelling up projects to be delivered by the public sector while the NPP favoured private business involvement, reflecting no doubt, its strong private sector membership.

While health is a common denominator, the UKCE report reflects to a large extent the views of the consumers of public services while the NPP represents the opinions of leaders who either bear responsibility for, or see business opportunities in, levelling up.

Thirdly, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership report, by the very name of its publishers, treats levelling up as a regional issue while the UKCE document recognises that that is no longer the case, if it ever was, as the Levelling up Secretary made explicit this week, as reported here yesterday. Focus groups for the UKCE report were held in Barking & Dagenham, as well as in northern England.

The UKCE finds that councillors have a head start over Whitehall in terms of trust in implementing levelling up – even though that trust is not strong. What a shame that councillors in the North East have still not been able to agree the expanded devolution deal that would enable them to take maximum advantage of levelling up opportunities, such as they are, and the local trust they enjoy, such as it is. For them, much more transparency and public engagement should be a priority.

*Levelling Up: What England Thinks. By Suzanne Hall, Will Jennings, Lawrence McKay, Sophie Stowers, Paula Surridge and Alan Wager. UK in a Changing Europe and The Policy Institute.