Forget What You Think You Know... about levelling up

In this episode, one of our NGDP graduates, Nathan Brewster, explores levelling up and what this will mean to local communities, with the help of experts Esther Webber (Politico), Councillor Richard Leese (Manchester City Council) and Daniel Bellis (Federation of Small Businesses).

Forget What You Think You Know

Episode 5: Levelling up

Levelling up has been mentioned on a number of occasions by Government as a nod to their plans to ensure no area is left behind as we look to recover from the pandemic. But what should communities expect to see from levelling up and how will this be delivered? In this episode Nathan Brewster, a graduate on the National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP), talks to Esther Webber, senior UK correspondent for Politico Europe, to get an insight into what we should expect from the Levelling Up White Paper, expected later this year.

Nathan also visits Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council to hear what his residents must see from levelling up and how the council can play a role; and Daniel Bellis, Senior Policy Adviser from Federation of Small Businesses to hear what businesses need to see in order to recover and thrive in the future. As always please remember to subscribe to our channel and feel free to listen and download our other episodes in the series. 

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Hello and welcome to this episode of the Forget What You Think You Know podcast.

I’m Nathan Brewster a graduate on the national graduate development scheme for local government.  One of the key areas I have been working on is devolution and levelling up and what it could mean for local communities. But what is levelling up?

Being from a former industrial town in the North East of England, to me levelling up means increasing opportunities and quality of life for some of the more deprived regions, communities and neighbourhoods across the country, but is this what we should expect?

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has mentioned levelling up in a number of his speeches to the country as a nod to his plan to help every area of the country thrive in the future.

Boris johnson: we believe that there is talent, genius and flair around the whole country but opportunity is not evenly distributed and that is what we’re doing around our campaign for levelling up

Nathan: So what does levelling up actually mean? What impact will it have on local communities? How will it be delivered? There are still a number of questions unanswered.

In this episode we will be getting insight on what we should expect from the upcoming levelling up white paper which will set out Government’s vision for levelling up and hearing some local perspectives on what challenges communities and businesses face post pandemic and how levelling up can help tackle some of these issues.

It’s time for you to Forget What You Think You Know about levelling up.

In my first interview I spoke with Esther Webber, the senior UK correspondent for Politico Europe. Here’s what she had to say.



Moderator: Hi, Esther, thank you for speaking with me today. Really looking forward to digging a little bit deeper into the levelling up agenda. So, first of all, we're just emerging from the pandemic, what do you think are the key areas the government needs to address as we look to recover?


Esther: Well, I think, so, the main thing emerging from the crisis will be jobs, will be shoring up jobs because obviously a lot of different business and organisations have suffered through the pandemic, and the government will need to show how it is supporting people to stay in the jobs that are still available while also  looking to create new opportunities. So, that's obviously a key part of it. Education is another really big one, obviously, the crisis has impacted children's learning hugely, So, I think that will be another really big area for the government. And also they will be looking at things like income support in the sense that the main benefit, Universal Credit, has been uplifted during the pandemic, and there's obviously going to be a, kind of, crunch point when and if that is reversed. So, yes, those are some of the big challenges government is looking at as we hopefully emerge from the pandemic.



Moderator: So, I suppose moving on a bit more to levelling up, as part of the recovery and even before COVID, government and the prime minister, in particular, spoke a lot about levelling up every area in the country. What do you think the government mean when they talk about this?


So, I think at its, kind of, core, levelling up is, or should be, about reducing regional inequality. And obviously, that can mean loads of different things, so it's about,, you know, securing more jobs for certain parts of the country, better investment in skills and education. And some people have said that in fact because it encompasses so many different aspect and policy, it's a bit, kind of, vague or meaningless. And I think now that at this moment we're, sort of, coming out of the most severe part of the health crisis, that now the government is going to have to try and demonstrate that it can actually convert that phrase into something more concrete.



Moderator: Absolutely, thank you, Esther. So, we've discussed a bit about what you think government means about levelling up a country, and we know more details will be announced in the levelling up white paper later this year, but what do you expect we will see within the white paper?


Esther: So, I think the white paper will touch on a lot of the things we've talked about, so in terms of jobs, education, skills, also I suppose what we haven't discussed so far is infrastructure investment, which seems to be one of the government's preferred levers to pull with regards to levelling up. The idea that by funding big infrastructure projects, transport and so on, they create jobs at the same time as improving connectivity. So, I expect that will also feature, but there will be a more wholesale approach, and I think also what we can expect to see in the white paper is the problem we discussed a bit earlier about levelling up being possibly too broad a term. I think the government is aware of this and they know that this is an issue, and I think we can therefore expect the white paper to maybe have some more specifics about how the government is going to measure levelling up and demonstrate that it's made a difference.





Moderator: Absolutely, thanks, Esther. So, we've touched on this, I suppose, but, I suppose, getting it out a bit more explicit, should a local approach be adopted to levelling up, and if so, why do you think that would be the case?


Esther: Definitely, I think the phrase and the commitment to levelling up will be rather meaningless if it's not driven by a local approach and by people on the ground. I think the form which that takes has been a more difficult question, so I'm well aware that there's a criticism of the government that the promise to invest money hasn't been matched by more devolution of power or by necessarily involving local authorities at every stage.


 And I think that is a case for local areas to make and to, kind of, say, 'Well, we should be involved in this,' and to show, in certain cases, that the way those decisions are being taken at the moment hasn't gone hand in hand with more devolution. So, yes, I wouldn't say it's necessarily my place to say there should be more devolution, but I think the government is definitely open to criticism on that front. 

Moderator: So, will levelling up help as the country looks to recover


Esther: It definitely should, I mean, the phrase the prime minister likes to use it, 'Build back better,' so that slogan is all about, or it should be all about, a, kind of, reconstruction after the pandemic in a way that's more equitable. And I think also an added factor which you touched on earlier is that areas which were already suffering multiple problems associated with deprivation, so, sort of, lower life expectancy, lower rates of employment. Often those areas have been worse affected by the pandemic precisely because of the demographics, so the people who live there, so people with pre-existing health problems, people who have had to attend work throughout the pandemic for various reasons. So, some of those problems have been made worse, and obviously, if we're looking to recover from the pandemic and make it an equal recovery, then the government really has to focus on those areas and how they're going to stop those problems from getting even worse.


NATHAN: So it sounds like the white paper will aim tackle inequalities across the country and will look at investing more in jobs, skills and some of the priority areas to get the economy back up and running as we look to recover. It also sounds like only a local approach to levelling up will work. With this in mind I wanted to find out how that could actually be delivered on the ground.

I went to speak with Manchester City Council Leader, Sir Richard Leese to find out how levelling up could help communities in and around the Manchester area and what role the council there could take in this.


Manchester is a very famous city, but can you give us a bit of a background to Manchester? So, kind of, the city size, its characteristics, even some insight into its residents?


So, since probably around about the year 2000, our population has been increasing, on average, at 2% a year.


So, we now have a population of probably around about 560,000. We were hovering at 400,000, so that's been a significant increase in population. We are very much a young city and getting younger. So, for example, for Greater Manchester, a third of all the 18-29-year-olds live in the city of Manchester. Certainly pre-COVID, we had the fastest growing economy in the country, one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. So, I suppose the only other thing I'd say about the demographics of the place is that we now have over 200 first languages spoken in our schools. We are, along with London, I think we, kind of, equal London for diversity, but we're the most diverse city in the UK, which I think one of our strengths has been that diversity.


NATHAN: So, there's lots of interesting things in there. Going a bit onto the pandemic, can you give us some insight into the impact COVID-19 has had on the communities in Manchester?


There was a Marmot report published earlier this week that showed 25% drop in life expectancy as a result of COVID, compared to the national average. So, there has been a quite severe health impact. Lying below that is that we know there's massive increases in people with mental health problems as a result of COVID, particularly younger people. Sections of our industry, clearly we've a big strong tourism sector, strong sports sector, strong hospitality and culture sector, all of that has been, until very recently, pretty much closed down, really. Again, Greater Manchester has probably had lockdown conditions more than anywhere else in the country over the period of COVID. So, it has, I think, had certainly an impact on the health of the city. We will see long-term health impacts. We are looking at the impact of long-term mental health issues for our younger people, long COVID, all of which we will need to address as we go forward into recovery. The economics of the city, we're finding now restaurants and bars have been reopened and so on, people that had got used to having takeaways rather than going on, well, they got that wrong. I tell you that Mancs couldn't wait to get out and so the hospitality industry, where it's open, it's thriving. Although we now face another problem, is we have major staffing shortages.


Not least a big chunk of that workforce were from oth er parts of Europe. They've gone home and if they were planning to come back, they can't because of COVID. So, yes, our challenge now for growing the economy is actually filling vacancies, rather than anything else. Again, what we need to do then is match people who are economically inactive with the jobs that we've got.



NATHAN: Thanks for that, Richard. Can you give us some insight into the support the council gave, and also some of the challenges the council faced during the pandemic and now, I suppose, too?


Richard Leese: Well, I think we'll start with our own workforce, of course. At any given time throughout the pandemic, over 50% of the council workforce have been at their normal place of work, because they can't do their jobs otherwise. That's both direct employees and contractors. So, you can't empty a bin on Zoom. You can't provide care to an elderly person or a disabled person via Zoom, so lots of people had to be in their physical places of work. That's the case all the way through. We've done a number of things. First of all, , we've been sourcing, warehousing and supplying our own PPE, particularly to care homes in the early days of the pandemic, when national supplies were just not getting through. We are still supplying amounts of PPE. We set up a massive food operation for vulnerable people who were effectively locked up in their homes. So, the shortage of supermarket slots, even if they knew how to use the supermarket slot, there's an assumption that, quite often, elderly people who really were not very IT savvy. So a massive food supply operation, working with the voluntary sector but, again, with the central hub. That was council staff, volunteers but seconded from out of their normal job in order to do that sort of work. We put in the COVID hotline, operating seven days a week that still exists, actually, but the number of calls clearly is a lot, lot smaller than it used to be. It was hundreds in the early days, people seeking support. We tried to deal, again, working with voluntary sector partners, with issues around loneliness, lack of contact, those health problems that have gone with COVID.


Particularly adult care, working very intensively with colleagues in the health system, particularly around discharge. About making sure that people who don't need to be in hospital get out of hospital as quick as possible. I have to say, some Herculean task in that, so it's done a phenomenal job. Making sure that care homes were safe places. Given the recent controversy about whether the government did ask for old people to be tested before being discharged to a care home, government might not have done but we did. Locally, we put that in place, to make sure that we did test people before discharge. So, actually, yes, making sure, and similarly, for the domiciliary care, making sure those services were in place. Massive amount of support to business, largely through managing government funds. Alongside that, particularly for hospitality, you go into Manchester city centre and some of our district centres now, you'll find tables and chairs in hospitality where they didn't used to be. Whole streets have been pedestrianised. Some of that will become permanent. We've done everything possible that we can to keep business operating. We established with colleagues in the private sector a business sounding board, so we could work with business, to make sure that we kept the economy going as far as possible, and we are able to rebuild it as quickly as possible. A lot of work around enforcement, so making sure shops, licensed premises and so on, followed the rules on COVID, so a massive task around that, through licensing officers, environmental health officers and so on.


you know, we've been operating localised test and trace far more effectively than the national system. We've been doing lots of community activity around vaccinations. Again, working with communities but effectively taking vaccination to the people, rather than necessarily expecting them to travel significant distances to centres where they could get vaccinated. We've been doing a lot around COVID, as well, and massive education programmes on COVID, so people understand it. It's been quite busy.



NATHAN: Yes, absolutely. We've touched already on inequalities but what do you think needs to be done in future to address some of these inequalities that you've said COVID has, kind of, laid bare?


. The real question comes down to how do we effectively eliminate or reduce inequality in the first place, which I think does take us to government's levelling up agenda, or lack of a levelling up agenda. Well, it's got a levelling up agenda. It hasn't got a levelling up strategy. levelling up, if we look at people, rather than places, this is a long-term project. If we're not thinking in ten, fifteen, twenty years, then we're not on the right page at all. There really needs to be a strategic approach about investing in those communities for the long term.










NATHAN: I know there'll be a lot of institutions involved but do you think councils could and should lead the levelling up agenda. To do that, what support would be needed?


Richard Leese: Well, look, council's job, basically the fundamental job is to be leaders of place. Yes, we deliver services and they're important services. For many people, they're lifesaving services, so clearly the service element is fundamental to what councils do, but we are leaders of place. We have no reason to exist other than the place that we represent and we're the only institution that that's true about. Yes, we already have the ability to bring partners together. In Manchester, we have a long-term strategy for the city. The Our Manchester strategy. It's the strategy for the city and it was written by the city. So, massive consultation participation exercises, health, education at every level. The voluntary sector, faith groups, individuals, environmental groups, you name it, all involved in determining that strategy, with an enormous consensus of the sort of city people want to see. We asked people in Manchester, 'Tell us what your dream Manchester is.' We invited people to dream and our strategy is real. It's deliverable, it's real, but it's really based on our population's vision and aspirations for the city. So, we've done that. We have a partnership, the Our Manchester forum, that meets on a regular basis to be able to deliver that. I said earlier, around COVID, that we brought together a business sounding board from the private sector, to support us in economic recovery.


We as a council convened that, brought it together. They run it, we don't run it. They were very clear about that. We stimulated that, so we already play that leadership role. Clearly what we need from government is effectively the power and resources to be able to do that more effectively.


What I would like from the levelling up agenda is for us, as a place, to be able to agree, rather than going through bidding for little pots of money here, there and everywhere, to agree a medium-term strategy with central government, agree what the level of resource is. Do that once, and then be able to get on with it, rather than what we are doing. So, that's what I'd really like from the levelling up agenda, but we'll argue about what that level of resource ought to be and so on. We ought to be able to have at least a five-year plan that we can agree with government, agree what level of resource we'll get for that five-year plan and be able to get on.



NATHAN: So it sounds like local areas hold the key to our recovery as we look to the next few years but a long-term solution is needed if they are to achieve anything. As mentioned in my interview with Richard, in order for places to economically recover businesses must be empowered to thrive again. It sounds like councils and local partners can play a key part in this. I wanted to hear from businesses to see what support they actually need and what they would like to see from national and local government in order to level up.

With this in mind I spoke with Daniel Bellis, from the Federation of Small Businesses. They represent hundreds of thousands of small businesses that all vary in shape and size. Here’s what Dan had to say.


NATHAN: I imagine the pandemic has had, well, and continues to have a huge impact on small businesses. Do you find that's the case, Dan?


Daniel: Definitely. I think it's not just small businesses. I think if you rewind to about eighteen months ago, everyone had grand plans, whether or not that was expansion, taking on new challenges within the businesses. Or, if you're just the likes of you and I, perhaps even just going on holiday in the summer. A lot of those initial plans were put on hold and for small businesses, those plans turned from expansion and looking forward to the future, to immediate survival. Instead of how do we get this business to grow, it was how do I survive, not just the next six months , but the next six weeks? I think a lot of businesses over the last year have seen some pretty dark times. A lot of them have been worried about how they're keeping-, not just food on the table for themselves but also their employees, if they have employees, going forward. But, hopefully now as we're beginning to come out the other end of the crisis, we're beginning to see small business confidence (ph 02.45) pick up. There is a bit of optimism there that those who have made it through this far the pandemic and the crisis can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's very important to remember that there are a number of businesses in sectors that are still closed and haven't had any opportunity over the last eighteen months to open up and to generate any income. So, for us at FSB, they're the ones that we've got a very keen eye on at the moment, ensuring that they make it through this crisis as well as those that are beginning to feel a bit more confident now as things progress and go forward.



NATHAN: Moving on a bit, how have councils and local partners helped to support their local businesses through the pandemic and through this difficult period in general? Have you heard any particular stories?


Daniel: I think local government has had probably one of the biggest challenges in terms of supporting small businesses. So, obviously, there has been a flurry of grants that have been issued from the central government and obviously, a lot of the execution of that has been carried about by local authorities and councillors there. To those local authorities that have got the money out of the door to local businesses, I cannot stress enough how lifesaving those grants have been to many small businesses that we've heard of. Quite frankly, without those grants, those businesses wouldn't be there today. All of the support that has come via the government has been extremely welcome, but those grants have been consistently top of the message that says, 'Actually, no this has been the one bit that, if it wasn't for it, we wouldn't survive.' So, for those local authorities that have managed to get the job done in that area, thank you. However, there is still a big issue in terms of getting some of that money out. We understand as FSB that it's complicated and that local authorities can be caught in a bit of a rock and a hard place when it comes to issuing these grants, but we would almost always urge local authorities to look at the individual cases of the businesses.


  Even if it's just a couple of grand, those small amounts make a huge difference to small businesses. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the local authority, but I know that when the grants were first announced eighteen months ago there were two or three local authorities that were extremely quick off the blocks in issuing grant money to businesses before I think they'd even received it from the central government treasury. Those types of moves were incredibly positive in getting that money out quickly. I think one of the key things that we've seen from local authorities has been the importance and the need for strong local leadership in this. Where you've got the ability of your local leaders to make those decisions, to enable the council to be quick off their feet, to support businesses where they can, it's been really beneficial.


NATHAN: So moving on a bit to levelling up, levelling up might mean different things to different people, and again recognising the diversity that you mentioned earlier, that small businesses are diverse. What do small businesses generally need to see in order to truly level up?


Daniel: You're absolutely right Nathan, in terms of it meaning different things to different people, and it will mean different things to different businesses as well. So, whether your business is involved in exporting or it's all local produce, produced locally, levelling up is going to mean different things to them. Obviously, if you take the geographic nature of the UK, levelling up is going to mean different things in different parts of the UK. So, we need our town centres, our high streets, our local areas, to reflect our local people, but also our local businesses in them as well.


That might be looking at, 'Okay, how exposed are we to the like of the big department stores closing down? Is that going to leave a huge hole? What are our transport links to our nearest port, our nearest railways, our nearest (mw 19.55) in terms of our cities and town centres? How easily can we trade between those? (TC 00:20:00) There does almost seem to be a danger sometimes that all roads lead to London, and actually what we need to do is connect our towns and our cities and our businesses in those local areas a lot better in order to enable them to trade locally, not necessarily down an M1 corridor, for example. So, there's a lot that we can do in different town centres and different areas, but I think the key people involved in making these decisions will be the local people, the local businesses.


NATHAN: Yes, absolutely. I think that just shows the diversity of small businesses across different areas, as you say. So, you've mentioned that levelling up, kind of-, the key players are regional people, local people and local businesses. What role could councils play to help businesses in their area survive and thrive in the short term, but also looking into the future?


Daniel: Definitely. I think the biggest lesson that we can learn is unshackling. So, take off the red tape, take off the restrictions.     


Just because a guidance document written in Whitehall in London doesn't explicitly say that you can use this particular pot of money for that very particular issue that you have in your town centre that is crippling some of your businesses-, you should have the ability as a local leader to say, 'Actually, this fund is there to try and level up. It's to try and improve this place, make business easier, make life easier, create jobs in the long run, but just because it doesn't fit this very narrow brief, it means that we can't use it.' You should be able to have that leeway, that leverage, to be able to say 'Actually, we're still hitting that wider goal here and we have the confidence in ourselves as local leaders in our community to say, 'You know what, we believe we're still meeting your overall targets. We're doing it our way.'' I think that's the importance of having that level of local evolution (ph 23.45) when it comes to levelling up.


NATHAN: Thanks, Dan. That's really interesting. So, councils can utilise their flexibility and their knowledge base of the businesses in their area.


Daniel: Definitely. Local businesses and local leaders will be integral to levelling up. I don't think that this is something that can be run from the central government, simply because each of these different areas are different. They've all got their own histories, long histories, and they've all got their own challenges, so the best people to understand those within that broad framework are the local people.


NATHAN: From my chats with guests today I’ve found one defining feature. Levelling up can’t take a one shape suits all approach. For levelling up to work effectively it must be lead locally by people who know their community’s needs best. If we are to recover and thrive as a country post-pandemic, a local approach is vital.

Until next time, I’ve been Nathan Brewster and I hope this has helped you to forget what you think you know about levelling up.