When it comes to public policy there is always a difference between what people would like to happen and what actually happens. This is particularly true when it comes to things that ought to happen.
Take the great mission to bring about levelling up across the nation. Or the mission to break the hold of the Big Four audit firms and ensure that other firms, in their own levelling-up process, share the work, eventually grow into realistic challengers and reduce the perceived monopoly of providers at the top.
The concepts are given the oxygen of good intentions, but the realities are different. Small auditors don’t become big auditors and, in truth, would probably prefer not to be, the threat of litigation being what it is. Meanwhile bus routes connecting villages in the north of England remain close to non-existent, while the Number 6 bus continues to roll across central London on a regular and frequent timetable.
If politicians stuck to all those slogans, the whole levelling-up argument would become redundant
High praise indeed
The opening section of the white paper published last month, ‘Levelling Up The United Kingdom’, should really have come with a fanfare of trumpets attached.
The first line tells us that ‘The United Kingdom is an unparalleled success story’ and describes it, still within the opening sentence, as ‘a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic state with the world’s best broadcaster’. (We can pause in the midst of that sentence to raise a slight doubt here, given that the minister responsible for that broadcaster, Nadine Dorries, recently said that she would like to see it closed down.)
The sentence continues its paean, celebrating ‘a vibrantly creative arts sector; a National Health Service that guarantees care for every citizen; charities and voluntary groups that perform a million acts of kindness daily; globally renowned scientists extending the boundaries of knowledge every year’.
Haldane seems to have been shackled to a Whitehall loath to cut free from its indecisive inclinations
Even business, which the politicians tend to disparage, gets its clause in this same opening sentence: ‘entrepreneurs developing the products and services that bring joy to so many’. And then the sentence – still the opening sentence – closes with a final flourish: ‘And millions of citizens whose kindness and compassion has been so powerfully displayed during the Covid-19 pandemic’.
There, the opening sentence closes. It is brilliant. Spontaneous cheering should break out. And I would not disagree with a word of it in terms of the aspirations it displays. If politicians stuck to all those slogans and worked doggedly and diligently to make them realities, then the whole levelling-up argument would become redundant. But they don’t, and it doesn’t.
Turning intentions into realities
Fortunately, the white paper, after that sentence, continues for another 350 pages of analysis of how levelling up could be made a reality. And that is where the extent of the hard work still to come to turn intentions into realities becomes obvious.
The man who was seconded to Whitehall to produce the white paper was Andy Haldane, who previously had devoted a stellar career as chief economist at the Bank of England to developing a well-earned reputation for being both thoughtful and supremely able at explaining complicated concepts to the public. But he has had his work cut out here. You can’t help but feel that he has been in a three-legged race, partly shackled to a Whitehall loath to cut free from its indecisive inclinations.
'The government’s feet can be held to the flames. That is the essence of system change’
For the long term
What Haldane hopes, as he made clear in a discussion of the white paper at the Institute for Government the other day, is that he is determined that the whole levelling-up process should be free of the deadening influence of the electoral cycle.
The idea is to ensure that a long-term view and strategy is taken, to fix a point on the horizon – ‘not a spending-review period’, says Haldane, ‘but at least a decade’. Then a line would be drawn back from that point and a timescale for actions put in place. Every year there will be a statutory review of what progress has been made to prompt the difficult questions of whether enough is being done.
‘The government’s feet can be held to the flames’, says Haldane. ‘That is the essence of system change and system change is what we need’.
The only downside to this is that even if you only have a short memory, you will recall that Haldane chaired the Industrial Strategy Group – ‘an independent advisory group tasked with providing impartial and expert evaluation of the Government’s progress in delivering the aims of the industrial strategy’. It, too, was to hold the government to account in its scrutiny. But just as it was about to, two years after it was set up, the government simply abolished it.
It would find it harder to abolish the whole edifice of its levelling-up process. But it does mean that it has previous. The test will be whether it can genuinely be tied to a long-term plan of bringing about real change across UK society.
It is all about driving decision-making down to local bodies, local communities and local businesses
The biggest and most valuable change that the white paper suggests is the steady expansion of the devolution of central powers to local bodies and local mayors. ‘By 2030’, says Haldane, ‘every part of England that wishes a devolution deal will have one and will have powers equivalent to London. It is ambitious’, he says, ‘but eminently achievable’.
It is all about driving decision-making down to local bodies, local communities and local businesses. If the politics doesn’t get in the way, that route could be an effective one. The realities could indeed reflect the intentions in the end.
As Haldane pointed out, the concept of levelling up isn’t new. As he told the Institute for Government: ‘The origin of the branding, the slogan, “levelling up”, is a Johnson, but it is not the one you think. It is Samuel Johnson on the 21st of July 1763 in a diary entry talking about: “the levelling doctrine”. So the slogan is an 18th-century one and has stood the test of time’, he says.
Pause for another fanfare of trumpets and may it all come to pass.