Opinion: Leveling Up Britain: Long-awaited White Paper Details Promised Post-Brexit Economic Policy

Opinion: Leveling Up Britain: Long-awaited White Paper Details Promised Post-Brexit Economic Policy

In the first week of February 2022, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published a long-awaited White Paper. The White Paper details a series of promised policies espoused by the Conservative Party aimed at helping grow the UK’s economy, while balancing regional inequalities.

The recent paper targeted four areas to help reduce the regional income differences. One of the biggest focuses is on how local governance can be fine-tuned to better deliver goods and services to the people. The other three areas: infrastructure, skills and innovation, stem from strengthening local governance, as each can reach its full potential being administered locally.

Local Governance

One of the cornerstone policies for the Levelling Up White Paper is to grant more power to local authorities. The plan would allow blocs of counties to join together, similar to Greater Manchester or the West Midlands, granting authority over their transport, housing and social policy.

However, the response by local leaders has been mixed. Tim Oliver, chair of the County Councils Network, expressed a positive view on the White Paper, but others proved sceptical. Leader of the Nottingham City Council David Mellen said that the Paper isn’t doing “the levelling up job the Government came to do.”

Much of the negativity stems from two issues. First is the meaning of devolution. Ashford District Council Leader Jason Zadrozny expressed this sentiment clearly by saying,

“The White Paper doesn’t clearly define what levelling up means, nor what any devolution deal may mean. It doesn’t state what extra powers we will get. Devolution is just a word and is nothing without the nuts and bolts. I’m not sure that residents will welcome extra, pricey bureaucracy when the cost of living crisis is hitting them so hard.”

Points of contention may arise between the central government and local councils, where funds and powers are arguably delineated based on political back scratching and party affiliation. Conflict over competencies, such as tax levying or fixing roads, among other things, could slow progress and frustrate residents. For there to be any real direction, the powers devolved to councils need to be clearly set out, and a plan for councils to obtain them formulated.

The second issue facing devolution has already been touched on: funding. David Mellen summed up the feeling toward Government promises of funding for councils,

“Nottingham has lost a huge amount of money over the last 12 years due to reductions in government funding and [the White Paper] is not making up for all of those things.”

Funding is a crucial concern for local councils around the UK. Over the last decade, funding has declined by 16%. All while the central government’s grants have been cut by 37%. The rapid reduction in funds has hindered council services and left a deep distrust of the central government by local authorities.

If the Government is serious about devolution, funding must be available, or limited services will continue, and councils will strain under the burdens of providing for local residents. Funding local councils to, or near, their 2010 levels is a win for the Government, both politically and practically: residents will be happy and local authorities close to the issues can better tackle them.

Infrastructure, Skills and Innovation

A clear devolution policy will form the foundation for other levelling up policy goals to take flight. Infrastructure is a critical element of the White Paper and for a good reason. It suggests that to tackle national housing issues, the current scheme in which 80 per cent of funding provided by Homes England is required to go to the most unaffordable parts of the country, should be scrapped. The money would then go into a fund developing brownfield sites in the Midlands and the North of England.

However, scrapping the current system would eliminate funding for those seeking homes in London and the South East – by far the most expensive parts of the country for housing. Targeting northern regions for investment in infrastructure is needed, but, defunding London to fund other projects is not the answer. To fulfil campaign promises while not disadvantaging other parts of the UK, the Government must find additional sources of revenue or encourage private investment. Funds should be distributed amongst local councils, who can best utilize the money to address housing, infrastructure and public service needs.

The White Paper also stresses the need to invest in people. The Government wants to increase educational resources available to both kids in school and adults in need of upskilling. Money will be earmarked to improve child literacy and numeracy in school, aiming to establish a base to build skills for the modern workforce at an earlier age. It aims to upskill 200,000 adults by 2030 but according to Stephen Evans of the Learning to Work Institute, the investment in skills outlined by the paper would still be nearly £1 billion short of 2010 levels. Again, government funding falls short of the previous precedent and may only paper over cracks forming in the UK’s skills base.

Finally, the Paper addresses innovation and the need to boost productivity. Key to the Government’s plans is an investment of over £22 billion per year, by 2025, on R&D activities in regions outside London and the South East. The Government has outlined plans to invest £100 million annually in new “innovation accelerators” such as Greater Manchester, West Midlands (Greater Birmingham) and Glasgow. By shifting R&D to new cities, the Government will attempt to redistribute economic power away from London. The plan seems genuinely good, as many residents in the new centres could take advantage of new jobs in their cities and ultimately help rebalance regional wealth in the UK.


Overall, the Levelling Up White Paper presents a clear path forward for the UK’s economy. Investing in infrastructure, skills and innovation is desperately needed in the UK, following a decade of austerity and with the Brexit uncertainty rearing its head. Principally, one of the most revolutionary reforms could come in devolution. Appropriately done, devolution could re-energise councils and allow them to target specific needs.

Yet, the White Paper does not make room for new funds. The plan risks depriving areas with already tight budgets and could threaten to push Britain backwards, rather than pull it forwards. If the UK is to “Level up” correctly, it must have difficult discussions with the British people, explaining that new funding is needed to ensure that all areas of the UK grow.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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