Adam Hawksbee is Deputy Director and Head of Levelling Up at Onward
Levelling Up was always going to be difficult. But since the launch of the White Paper just over 100 days ago, things have gotten more challenging. The cost of living crisis is hitting parts of the Midlands and the North hard, given their greater vulnerability to energy prices. Hull and Wolverhampton have a rate of fuel poverty four times higher than Surrey Heath and Wokingham. And the war in Ukraine has (rightly) absorbed an enormous amount of Government time, including the Department for Levelling Up who lead the Homes for Ukraine programme.
In the face of all these pressures, it’s understandable that progress on Levelling Up has been limited. But that needs to change fast. An election is under two years away, and, while members of the public understand that regeneration won’t happen overnight, they want to see results. The conversation in Westminster often focuses on big national projects or major bits of infrastructure – but when voters think about Levelling Up, their focus is much more local.
As part of a new research programme Levelling Up In Practice, Onward have been spending time in communities around the country to understand their priorities. We started our work in Oldham, which Michael Gove singled out in his 2021 conference speech as a litmus test for whether Levelling Up has been a success. The town on the fringe of Manchester has had a few political earthquakes in recent years – with two successive council leaders losing their seats at the 2021 and 2022 local elections.
When we spoke to members of the public in Oldham about levelling up, their priorities were rooted in a sense of local history and identity. They immediately told us about the history of Tommyfield Market in the town centre, which used to be ‘buzzing’, but said that these days everybody drives to the new shopping centre in Rochdale. They talked about antisocial behaviour and how they didn’t feel safe getting into Manchester on the MetroLink, which only opened in 2014.
They painted a picture of boarded up shops and blighted buildings around the Spindles Shopping Centre – describing the area as ‘bleak’ and ‘getting greyer and grey’. And they told us that if you wanted to understand how things were going for them, you just needed to look at Oldham FC – who recently became the first Premier League club to be relegated from the English Football League.
It’s easy to be dismissive about this version of Levelling Up. Some have cynically argued that a focus on ‘hanging baskets’ won’t turn around areas of the country that have been suffering decline and reduced investment for decades.
But what that misses is the role of hope and aspiration in kickstarting regeneration. People in Oldham told us about the high street because it is symbolic. It reflects the fact that they felt forgotten and ignored, and believed that the people who were meant to be in charge – both on the local Council and in Westminster – don’t care.
Balancing these two versions of the agenda – Levelling Up fast and slow – is the trick that Ministers need to pull off. Taking small, concrete actions today to give communities hope that things start to change. And then delivering major changes to how government invests and supports economic growth over the long term.
Today we’ve published an interim report sharing some of our lessons from Oldham, and providing some actionable ideas for local leaders. Antisocial behaviour could be tackled by supporting more activities for young people, bringing together disparate services into youth hubs in neighbourhoods across the area. Greater use of repair notices by the council could improve the look and feel of the high street, in advance of the transformation of the shopping centre as part of the Towns Fund programme.
In advance of the Compulsory Rent Auction mechanism being introduced, Oldham could put all its vacant property owners on notice – telling them they’ll be forced to rent out their property the moment the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill becomes law.
All this has to take place alongside serious economic transformation. The recently published Oldham Economic Review, led by Oldham College and supported by the University of Manchester and other local organisations, sets out clear-headed ideas for how to bring back growth and create new jobs. But members of the public were clear that they didn’t want their area to become a mini-Manchester. They viewed the skyscrapers in the city with suspicion.
The approaches we’ve recommended have one thing in common – they are rooted in the local, not the national. This has big benefits for Ministers. It doesn’t place additional strain on a Whitehall machine creaking under pressure. And it doesn’t take years to see results – members of the public could observe the green shoots of improvement in mere months.
But what it does require is a commitment to stay the course on Levelling Up, and remember the importance of regeneration to the new electoral coalition the Conservatives convened in 2019.