Policy and Public Affairs Manager Theo Plowman takes a closer look at the Levelling Up White Paper and its impact on the landscape profession.

Altrincham. © Adrian Lambert / High Streets Task Force

The UK Government has published its long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper, setting out its strategy to reduce regional inequalities across the UK.

The Levelling Up agenda

The main premise of levelling up is to reduce regional inequality while improving outcomes across the country. The government emphasises a focus on “place” through rhetoric about ‘restoring people’s sense of pride in their community’ and ‘[enabling] more people to get on in life, without feeling they have to leave their local area’.

The promise to ‘level up and unite the country’ has has been a recurring slogan since the current government entered office. It was a central pledge in the Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto: providing, alongside its counterpart promise to ‘get Brexit done’, one of history’s simplest plans for government.

Indeed, the Levelling Up agenda has attracted consistent criticism for its nebulous nature, lacking clarity on what it means, what policy areas it covers, and how the government will deliver it.

The White Paper cements the agenda’s wide-ranging ambition. It is a dense document with twelve broad missions, including policy on housing and development, broadband, education, skills and training, public transport, crime, and even healthy food. Such a vast range of policy areas will demand the involvement of multiple departments involved, but the newly named Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) will take the driving seat. Michael Gove, in his dual role as Secretary of State for Levelling Up and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, will need to wear both hats to steer this flagship policy.

Areas of interest to landscape professionals

The document is 332 pages long, but the tangible policy content doesn’t start until almost halfway through.

There are several areas of interest here; some new, some old. The most relevant announcements to landscape appear under the broad auspices of:

  1. Regeneration (with some auxiliary objectives of interest: transformational projects; high street rejuvenation; and green spaces)
  2. Communities
  3. Culture, heritage, and sport

Built environment and landscape professionals, particularly those in placemaking and urban regeneration, will play a key role in role in delivery.

Transformational projects

The government will identify and engage with 20 towns and cities in England that demonstrate strong local leadership and ambition, and that have the greatest potential to maximise the impact of existing investment. They will also expand mayoral powers throughout the UK.

Local leaders in England will be able to deliver regeneration by combining local funding, DLUHC’s £1.8bn brownfield and infrastructure fund, and private investment. Much of the tangible funding commitments, however, are from past announcements.

The government will also refocus the statutory priorities of Homes England, asking them to play a wider role in supporting local leaders to unlock barriers to regeneration.

High street rejuvenation

The government’s plans to level up and rejuvenate high-streets largely relies on existing strategies, funding, and partnerships.

The High Streets Task Force will continue to support local authorities, with the next 68 local authorities identified for targeted support.

Green spaces

The government plans to devolve more responsibilities to local leaders and communities to reimagine urban green space and improve access for communities. This includes enhancing and maintaining Green Belt protection.

The government will develop plans for:

  1. further greening the Green Belt in England;
  2. bringing back wildlife, increasing public access while delivering nature recovery; and
  3. securing further environmental improvements.

The government has also pledged to increase investment into parks. The LI is exploring partnership work with DLUHC to deliver the existing £9m UK-wide Levelling Up Parks Fund, which provides direct grants to deliver over 100 green spaces in the communities with the lowest access.

There will also be a new £30m parks fund to refurbish at least 30 local parks in England, with an emphasis on facilities for young families.

Better targets

The Levelling Up White Paper is, unlike recent government plans, backed with new targets. These deliverables will measure the governments performance and hopefully encourage policies and funding that will realise this vision.

Of interest to our sector are some useful, albeit ambiguous, targets on public pride in place, or ‘people’s satisfaction with their town centre and engagement in local culture and community’: ‘By 2030, pride in place …  will have risen in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing.’

Little new funding

A lot of the funding within the White Paper is from pre-allocated money or announcements we’ve already heard. It’s clear there is very little new money to spend.

The government are instead redirecting existing resources to support the Levelling Up agenda, with many powers devolved to local governments, and Homes England now in charge of tackling regional growth and development. Devolving responsibility to new and existing combined authorities and equipping them with more seconded and new civil servants will be crucial to successful implementation.

With just eight years to realise many targets, it seems unlikely that current resources alone will be enough. We will be calling on the government to target spending in ways that truly deliver: for example, £1 spent on parks in England returns an estimated £7 benefit.

Strong on vision, small on details

As I’ve often written in response to recent government plans, the proof will be in the pudding and the devil in the detail. The White Paper is not a full detailed plan on how to achieve levelling up; it is a vision. It currently lacks policies and plans, and the government still needs to flesh out its ideas to ensure these initiatives endure.

The government are, however, planning a significant amount of engagement and informal consultation. This includes setting up local panels and ‘a structured process’ of ministerial visits. The LI will ensure to represent our members’ voices in this process.

The White Paper contains ambitious plans to reduce regional inequality by 2030. Achieving its targets means developing and building on these ideas as soon as possible.

If you have any questions or would like to get involved in the LI’s policy work, please get in touch: policy@landscapeinstitute.org.

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