Co-ops respond to white paper on levelling up the UK

‘Levelling up should mean more than a slogan and a rerun of old policies’

Co-operatives have reacted to the government’s Levelling Up white paper, announced on 2 February, which sets out 12 national missions to be achieved by 2030 with the aim of spreading opportunity and prosperity.

These include narrowing the gap between the top and the worst-performing areas, increasing productivity, eliminating illiteracy and innumeracy in primary school leavers, intensifying education efforts on the most disadvantaged parts of the country and bringing the rest of the country’s transport systems closer to that of London.

Other government commitments include:

  • A 40% increase in domestic public investment in R&D outside the greater south east of England by 2030
  • Invest at least 55% of the the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) domestic R&D funding outside the greater south east by 2024/5.
  • Nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage across the UK and 5G coverage for most of the population.

The government claims a range of public metrics will be used to track progress and monitor the evolution of spatial disparities. The full white paper is yet to be unveiled.

Introducing the paper, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said that while the UK had “one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic economies”, not everyone shared equally in the country’s success.

“For decades, too many communities have been overlooked and undervalued. As some areas have flourished, others have been left in a cycle of decline. The UK has been like a jet firing on only one engine. Levelling up and this white paper is about ending this historic injustice and calling time on the postcode lottery.”

Mr Gove admitted that this “will not be an easy task, and it won’t happen overnight, but our 12 new national levelling up missions will drive real change in towns and cities across the UK, so that where you live will no longer determine how far you can go”.

Responding to the announcement, Co-op Group CEO Steve Murrells said on Twitter: “We welcome the early indications from the white paper. It’s important that the role to be played by business is fully realised. The unfairness that exists in every community means government can’t get anywhere near its goal to ‘level up’ the UK without the help of business.”

He added: “We can achieve meaningful progress when we work together. Businesses with purpose can be a force for investing into communities, rather than a means of extracting value from them.

“They can help individuals build the confidence and skills to prosper, irrespective of where they live or have come from. We have proven we can deliver in areas like apprenticeships, where we have the assets and capabilities to match the ambitions of the communities we serve.

“So my message to government is: we are ready. So let’s get started, because this is a mission which is critical for our country, our communities and our members.”

James Wright, policy officer at Co-operatives UK, said co-ops were best suited to contribute to the agenda. He added: “It looks like the white paper will set government some vital new missions, for example on inequalities in pay, opportunity, power and wellbeing. If this is ‘levelling-up’, then co-operatives have a strong and distinctive contribution to make, because by design, we empower communities to create their own opportunities and wealth. So, it’s encouraging to see mention of the social economy in the press release. I’m looking forward to seeing the detail.”

The Co-operative Party was critical of the plans, arguing: “Levelling up should mean more than a slogan and a rerun of old policies.”

Joe Fortune, general secretary of the Party, said: “Co-operators know that our movement already plays a vital role in strengthening communities and community power across the country. A fairer economy can only be achieved by placing our co-operative approaches at the centre of levelling up. Today’s white paper shows that the government can and must do more to learn from the success of our movement in empowering communities and powering local economies across the UK.”

‘Levelling up’ locally

One of the pledges in the white paper is that by 2030 “every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement.”

Councillor Sharon Taylor, the leader of Stevenage Borough Council and chair of the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network, said she welcomed the intent of levelling up but believed that the government had missed an opportunity.

“Mr Gove had a real opportunity here to do a radical piece of work, unshackling local government from Westminster, and giving us the funding to get on with the job. He hasn’t done that, and I think that’s disappointing,” she said.

Cllr Taylor also criticised the white paper for recycling pots of existing funding and failing to allocate new cash.

“The money has already been announced,” she said. “We know what it is and where it’s coming from, but we needed a very significant funding package to sit alongside this to make it work. A lot of the funding we currently get – and all of the funding in the Levelling Up fund – is one-off funding that creates projects but then doesn’t sustain them going forward. And because of the absolutely savage cuts to local government, you can see that all over the country. You get projects set up, but they can’t keep going because they don’t have the funding.”

Cllr Sharon Taylor OBE CC, Leader of Stevenage Borough Council and Chair of the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network

She welcomed the announcement that the Shared Prosperity funding would be allocated through a formula rather than through a bidding process, which tends to favour well-resourced authorities. But, she noted, even if the method works, the quantity of funding also needed to be sufficient.

Cllr Taylor also expressed concerns about local authorities potentially being prevented from accessing funding unless they reorganise, for example by having an elected mayor.

“My area doesn’t have any parish councils, for example. And I see Mr Gove is really advocating for making it much easier to set up Parish and Community Councils. I don’t object to this in principle, they’re good for getting people involved, but that’s adding cost into the system for governance, not actually adding funding for delivering the objective, so I’m not sure how that’s going to work.”

She added that the white paper also failed to address some of the biggest challenges for local authorities, such as climate change or digitisation.

“There is no money in local government for climate change at the moment and we really need that. There’s no money to increase the digital capacity around the country, which is another big challenge that we’re all facing. What I would have liked to see is the government using this as an opportunity to create green jobs and jobs that help to build the digital capacity in the country, with funding support. I think that’s another real missed opportunity.”

She also thinks that local authorities should have been much more involved and engaged with the white paper.

“This could have been a real step forward [towards] devolution – and as a co-operator, that’s really what I want to see. I want to see us given the powers and the funding to do what’s necessary locally.”

Cllr Taylor described how councils don’t have fundraising powers, but are told, for example, how much council tax they can raise or how much they can charge for their properties.

She added that the paper gathered together a range of policies that had been previously announced.

“I’ve been involved in local government for a long, long time now. There’s nothing in there that makes me think ‘Oh, this is going in the right direction’. I welcome the intent to level up communities and get rid of inequalities, but I can’t see how anything in this white paper is going to do that,” she said.

With thanks to Anca Voinea, The Co-op News.

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