The aspirations of the levelling up agenda are commendable. 

No one can argue with the objectives of levelling up - an improvement in standards of living, better educational outcomes for all, improved health and wellbeing. 

These outcomes should undoubtedly be at the top of every political agenda. In considering the devolution framework however, it is hard to assess precisely what changes are proposed and how they will underpin real, sustained levelling up.

The devolution framework

The Levelling Up White Paper outlines a Devolution Framework which describes the extent to which powers are indicatively proposed to be devolved based on whether a body attains Level 1, Level 2 or the top-ranking Level 3 status. There will however remain scope to negotiate further powers on a case-by-case basis.

At level 3, the White Paper champions the empowered and accountable metro mayor introduced to us (outside London) by a previous Conservative-led administration via The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. Alternative approaches are supported since one size never did fit all. However, areas that follow that devolution pathway could find themselves at the pinnacle of the three-tier ‘Devolution Framework’ with wider powers and freedoms over a host of functions not available to those on levels below. Those gold-medallist Level 3 bodies are promised broader functions, including transportation powers, various development powers and, critically, the ability to access long term investment funding. It all sounds comfortingly familiar.

At level two, single institutions (or County Councils) without a directly elected mayor governing a functional economic area (FEA) or whole county area would take silver. Combined authorities can already be created pursuant to the Local Democracy Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 (as supplemented by the Localism Act 2011). 

Local authorities working together across an FEA or whole county area (e.g., through a joint committee) do rather less well in the running and finish with bronze, taking home only a handful of additional devolved powers.

Local government reorganisation

So, what of other local government bodies? The so-called ‘patchwork’ of local government that exists currently has not been overlooked and the potential value in wholesale institutional reform gets a passing mention. However, the Government hasn’t mandated the reorganisation of local government to further the devolution agenda, citing the need to avoid the risk of significant disruption to services or delaying devolution deals – is this a missed opportunity?

The White Paper nods to the Government's intention to explore the introduction of further devolution legislation to allow for more widespread devolution which has greater depth by a simpler and more transparent process. It also states that Government will seek to establish a new form of combined authority model made up of upper-tier local authorities only (a County Council and associated unitaries) to create a single, accountable institution across an FEA or whole county; district councils will be permitted to be non-constituent members, so County Councils would be expected to work closely with their district councils.

Expanding the same devolved functions, we see in the ‘gold-medallist’ level 3 authorities to existing upper-tier authorities would be an important step. It shouldn’t be forgotten that local government – including district councils - can be incredibly effective in delivering local services to local people, understanding local issues, and responding to local concerns. Despite the significant funding cuts local government has had to overcome in recent years and the huge service pressures exacerbated by the pandemic, it already plays an undeniably pivotal role in levelling up and exercises an exceptionally broad range of functions. Allocations of Towns Fund, Future High Streets Fund, the Community Renewal Fund, and the Levelling Up Fund having been made to local authorities up and down the land and the successes of these allocations are lauded in the Levelling Up White Paper. 

The Levelling Up proposals do therefore give hope to upper-tier local authorities that the future may be filled with opportunities to adopt a more strategic, coherent, and long-term approach to levelling up across an FEA; however, the White Paper stops short of promising a fundamental revision of local government funding models. As a result, local authorities may find themselves constrained by the continuation of a siloed, smash and grab approach to funding which arguably denies them the opportunity to adopt the strategic approach the White Paper acknowledges is needed.

Neither does the White Paper offer clues as to how to overcome the current barriers to joint working and harness the will and commitment required at a local level; how then will this move us beyond the status quo?

More questions than answers

With no new funding, will the funding be adequate to facilitate an additional tier of government in some areas, local government reorganisations and /or the expansion of upper-tier authorities to undertake further functions, and the levelling up priorities? In areas without a Tier 3 body, will delivery of projects be funded in a way which promotes effective and coherent cross-regional strategies to underpin delivery – or will the mandated pace of delivery lead authorities to "spend in haste and repent at leisure"? How will cross-sector collaboration be promoted and supported in practice to achieve the best outcomes for all of us?

I suspect that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The vision is exciting, but I remain to be convinced that the levelling up agenda can really be achieved over the next eight years. Without a clearer and more comprehensive review of governance structures and the funding and operational constraints currently placed on existing regional and local government bodies, I fear things may just stay the same.

First published on (22 February 2022 - subscription only)