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Turning up the volume on levelling up

  • 5 January 2022
  • By Dionne Lee

This blog was contributed by Dionne Lee, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at the University of Teesside.

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that we turn up the volume on levelling-up. In fact, there are many who would argue that the volume is already rather high – it is after all a phrase that we have become used to hearing in everyday language, as the proliferation of discussions, webinars, papers, briefings and so on are a testament to.

Why then do we need to turn up the volume? Over the last year, Teesside University has been working with the UK2070 Commission to collate and curate evidence for its Teesside Taskforce. As an anchor institution embedded in the Tees Valley, we are already acutely aware of the socio-economic challenges faced by the region and our communities. However, evidence collated as part of the Commission’s work shows that these long-standing challenges have been exacerbated by short term policy initiatives and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Taskforce’s final report acknowledges the sheer scale of the task in Tees Valley and sets out a blueprint for the region. Tees Valley is not alone facing these challenges, however; the UK remains one of the most economically unequal countries in the OECD.

Levelling up has become a flagship policy for the Government, but there are those who remain cynical, questioning whether it is really needed and whether it is pure politicking as an attempt to appease newly Conservative constituencies. Over the last year, a significant amount of my work has, in one way or another, involved levelling up. From what I have observed there is a definitive need to level up and broadly speaking, a genuine commitment to delivering this.

As a policy, levelling up permeates many different government portfolios and sectors and it is precisely this complexity that has led to cynicism and ongoing debate. Reflecting on this lack of clarity alongside the findings from the Taskforce, I wonder whether we could move the debate forward by focussing not on what we assume levelling up to be but what it needs to be.  

This is something that Professor Paul Crawshaw and I considered in our paper, published along the Taskforce’s report. In the paper, we suggest that by looking beyond the rhetoric and high-level statements, levelling up could be distilled into one concept. Essentially, it is about maximising the potential of a region – therefore there is no ‘one size fits all’.

Although there is no single blueprint for levelling up, we suggest that to be successful, levelling up needs to:

  1. Be grounded in the region. Gathering insights and curating the lived experiences and aspirations of those in the region is vital.
  2. Empower regions to develop and deliver evidence-based solutions capable of addressing specific socio-economic challenges.
  3. Embed partnership and collaboration at the core. From a regional perspective, there needs to be commitment and active engagement with regional stakeholders working together to develop a shared vision and action plan. On a national level, government departments need to work together to ensure Levelling Up interventions cut across portfolio areas.

There is energy and excitement about the potential impact of any levelling up policy in the Tees Valley. As a region, the Tees Valley is proud of its industrial heritage and does not consider itself to be a ‘left behind’ place. Rather, it is that the challenges have been allowed to dominate the narrative. As the Taskforce report argues, it is time to reframe the Tees Valley narrative and levelling up can instigate such change by enhancing access to opportunities, improving social mobility and quality of life and ultimately restoring pride in our region.

The Teesside Taskforce report identifies the need to ‘shift the dial’. In the absence of a White Paper, we need to turn up the volume on levelling up. This does not mean every region should be shouting as loud as they can to try and secure investment, but rather collectively amplifying the discussion to shift focus on to what levelling up needs to be. As anchor institutions, universities such as Teesside have an important role to play and, working together with regional stakeholders, we can hopefully move the discussion forward from vague ideas to meaningful action that delivers the right outcomes for all regions.

HEPI’s recent paper on R&D spending and levelling up can be read here: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2021/10/21/new-report-says-rd-spending-should-focus-on-the-regions-as-part-of-levelling-up/.

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