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CIPFA student conference: levelling up roundtable

In its second roundtable, CIPFA brings together more public finance leaders of the future to see what they think of the levelling up agenda. Is it working?

CIPFA’s Chief Economist Jeffrey Matsu kicked off the levelling up discussion at the recent CIPFA student conference in Liverpool.

He explained that the levelling up agenda contributes towards the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals, which have been in play for eight years. In total, there are 17 goals that countries around the world, including the UK, have committed to achieving by 2030. The global call to action is ambitious, targeting interlinked goals such as ‘reducing inequalities’ and ‘partnerships’. The latter is where central and local governments can serve as enablers, partnering with the private and the third sector to share risk and deliver change, he explained.

However, some of the challenges of inequalities in education, health and jobs are deeply rooted and longstanding. Improving access to opportunities and raising productivity in areas with some of the lowest living standards has been a difficult nut to crack. Matsu said there is now a recognition that investments must go beyond infrastructure. The UK government’s levelling up agenda has made a commitment to develop human capital and social and wellbeing as part of its ‘6 capitals’ framework. In his view, it is incumbent on all of us to embrace this more diversified approach to policy making. The floor was then opened to the panellists.

Why are you interested in the levelling up agenda?

Nadim: I work and live in London. London is a preeminent global city with high levels of economic, political and cultural success. Despite this there are high levels of poverty and deprivation, and great levels of inequality. I believe these inequalities will not be solved by themselves, and the levelling up agenda will help central and local government look seriously at these issues.

Lucy: For me levelling up, and the White Paper, are at the heart of what local authorities and local councils stand for. That’s why it’s something I am interested in, and anything that improves people’s lives on a day-to-day basis is something I am very passionate about.

Zydrune: I have been briefly involved in monitoring levelling up budgets for the capital side, and for me I am looking for new ideas and new opinions on how we can achieve levelling up in local authorities.

James: I currently live in Reading and have grown up in Surrey Heath. The White Paper doesn’t paint the South East as one of the key targets of levelling up, so I am interested to come to the table and do some research to see what, if anything, levelling up could mean to a place like the South East and London.

Joshua: I am interested in levelling up because of its ability, I think, to potentially resolve decades of deficiencies in central government’s approach to local government funding. Leicestershire County Council is the lowest funded county council in the country, so I am passionate to see how new funding approaches could improve engagement with local communities and the levelling up agenda.

What kinds of levelling up policies would be effective in your region?

Joshua: We are the lowest funded county council, and there are going to be a lot of other counties that have issues with the way central government funds them. They [central government] need to get the funding right – matched with the needs and demands of citizens and taxpayers. Leicester is a post-industrial city, and there are quite a few areas in the county that suffer from the many socio-economic challenges that a post-industrial society presents. I think we need policies that focus on education, employment, entrepreneurialism and transport infrastructure. Investment in these areas would help to alleviate the aforementioned issues. Funding is key, though; we need to get that right before we can get the levelling up agenda working and really driving new opportunities.

James: Reading has become a bit of a Silicon Valley of the UK and there is a strong tech presence along the M4, but it’s apparent that hasn’t trickled down to all the communities in the town. There are still areas of poverty and inequality that need addressing.

Zydrune: Funding is very important, but we need to have accountability too about how any money is spent. We need to measure the impact of that funding and how it has affected the daily lives of people.

Lucy: The combined authority has given powers to local leaders to make local decisions for their area. It’s really beneficial when the people making decisions for your area are based in that area too. People can target funding to have more impact when they are living there, and it gives local people a pride of place.

Nadim: I agree with Lucy – devolution is a massive part of the levelling up agenda. Productivity was a key part of this agenda, and devolution and decentralisation are needed to help investment in local businesses and in technology.

AUDIENCE POLL

What policy objectives do you think are most pertinent to levelling up in your geographical area?

Boost productivity, pay, jobs and living standards: 56%
Spread opportunity and improve public services: 21%
Restore sense of community: 19%
Empower local leaders and communities: 5%

AUDIENCE POLL

In terms of outcomes relating to the main priority you identified, to what extent has levelling up been successful over the past 12 months?

Significant improvement: 0%
Moderate improvement: 9%
No change: 65%
Negative impact: 15%
Not sure: 11%

Does levelling up mean some communities will receive more and others less?

James: This is a discussion I had with a colleague – the White Paper talks about bringing everyone to an average, but in essence that means anyone who is above it will have their potential lowered a little bit. Objectively, we want to redistribute where we can, but the problem is making sure a council doesn’t lose resource, that it does not impact those most vulnerable.

Nadim: I think there are a lot of negativities attached to the levelling up agenda, particularly in London. They will get less – but it could be argued that in some parts of London, there are higher levels of poverty, deprivation and inequality. In Hackney, we have a massive housing crisis where rent rates are unbearable for people. It also means the council can’t accommodate local people and they have to move them out of the area. How will levelling up help that issue?

Do you have some examples of successful levelling up initiatives?

Lucy: Yes, Coventry was the City of Culture 2020, and that meant the community found theatre, music, art and culture was on their doorstep and available to them. This was something incredible and you don’t find that very often. It was at no cost or very little cost and available to all! It gave people chances and supported them with skills, innovation and literacy that came with the City of Culture award. It also gave people some pride in Coventry, uniting the city.

Joshua: We have an infrastructure initiative with the roll-out of superfast broadband across Leicestershire. A lot of areas in the county are quite rural and have historically suffered from very slow internet speeds. The ability to access superfast broadband across Leicestershire has gone from 6% in 2019 to 69% at the beginning of this year. This is an important development for citizens as well as businesses – with superfast broadband, rural Leicestershire may become a more attractive area to invest in.

AUDIENCE POLL

To what extent do you feel levelling up in your region will be achieved by 2030?

Optimistic: 21%
Neutral: 32%
Pessimistic: 47%

How connected are you and your community with the levelling up agenda?

Lucy: I feel very disconnected. The White Paper is a lovely vision, and it resonates with me, but on a day-to-day basis and with the cost of living crisis, it’s hard to see how anyone connects to it.

Zydrune: There are a lot of grey areas between what is in the White Paper and what becomes part of the planning and the reality and what will work in the long term.

Nadim: For education, technology and business, it is seen as a welcome agenda, but as always, there is a disconnect, as with housing. Disparities are still there.

Joshua: I am optimistic, but people need to see levelling up in practice. There is still an expectation gap to fill, and I feel that there needs to be more devolution to secure proper engagement. Taxpayers will need to feel the impact of fairer funding before they become more connected with the agenda. At present, I feel many taxpayers see the levelling up agenda as a means to secure votes.

AUDIENCE POLL

Do you have confidence in your organisation having the finance to deliver adequate services?

Yes: 35%
No: 53%
Not sure: 12%

How can we successfully implement levelling up in the long term when there is so much uncertainty in national government?

James: Clear targets and success indicators will tell us if we are working on track. Levelling up is going to mean such different things to different parts of the UK – it will be very tricky to measure success.

Conclusion

Matsu concluded the discussion by asking whether ‘everyone’ can be prosperous? Will there always be winners and losers in a free market society? For example, does entrepreneurship tend to thrive in areas where greater risk-taking is rewarded by the potential for financial gain? 

Ultimately, he would like CIPFA students to ask the tough questions and challenge what governments are doing to create more accessible opportunities and a level playing field for broader swathes of society. Developing the skills in public financial management to contribute to this step change is needed now, more than ever.

Meet the participants

Zydrune Condon, Management Accountancy Support Officer, Bury Council

James Hall, Trainee Accountant, Reading Borough Council

Lucy Higgins, NGDP Trainee Accountant, Coventry City Council

Joshua Malam, Management Accountant, Leicestershire County Council

Mohammed Nadim Zaman, Service Accountant for Adults, Health and Integration, London Borough of Hackney

 

This write-up was originally published in the October 2022 edition of PQ Magazine.

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