Renaisi’s CEO John Hitchin urges the government to get out of London and use new ways to think about Levelling Up.

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There have been a great many blogs and tweet threads about the Levelling Up White Paper (pdf), and despite the obvious relevance to our work, I have resisted adding too much to that pile. Partly because I’m not sure what the consequences of the white paper are going to be given the obvious divisions within the government around spending commitments, but also because I can’t really understand its ambition.

The white paper is fundamentally about the spatial nature of public policy and the uneven distribution of outcomes. That’s right up our street. But despite some interesting elements (the stuff on data is positive) the white paper only sees policy intervention into places in a couple of ways.

At Renaisi we use a five-way split for thinking about place-based change.

Place chart

Over and over again the white paper describes the problem in the wrong way. The government knows regeneration and devolution, and so that’s what it does. But it creates weird dissonances, especially when it talks about London. Seemingly wanting regeneration and devolution like London, but also, not like London.

“If metaphors increase our understanding, they do so only because they take us back to a familiar vantage, which is to say that a metaphor cannot bring anything nearer. Everything new is on the rim of our view, in the darkness, below the horizon, so that nothing new is visible but in the light of what we know”

Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know

Like London but not like London

London is a familiar vantage, but it is not a helpful one in this case. In this report I wrote for London Funders I outlined the ways place could be useful for the city. We do our front-line employment and advice work in the capital, so we know only too well that there are still plenty of problems that would benefit from some of the investments described in the white paper. But I get the sense from the white paper that government finds it hard to understand the rest of the country without reference to London. That fundamentally minimises the issues in the capital and clouds the thinking about everywhere else in the country.

“All of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them”

George Elliot, Middlemarch

New ways to look at place-based challenges

Politicians and policymakers must get out of London both physically and mentally (not a new ask), and look at other ways of addressing the place-based challenge: to look for metaphors that are not tied up in London. Organisations like Civic Square in Birmingham, Onion Collective in Somerset, and the Heeley Trust in Sheffield spring to mind.

In terms of what we call targeting, this could mean the government and others thinking much more about what the philanthropic sector, around the world and in the UK, has learned about targeted policy on places. Not as a way to ration resources, but to deliver specific social change differently, or more successfully. Like this example from Sport England and this from the Youth Endowment Fund.

Philanthropy taught us a great deal about systemic approaches. Government needs to drop its presumed primacy in conversations about place-based systems. It’s not all about pots of money delegated from central to local government with lots of strings attached, which is often what happens when government says it’s devolving power but isn’t really. We can instead think about regeneration in different and locally-led ways, such as some of the ideas around local ownership of assets, or recent campaigns from Power to Change on the high street.

As to community-led approaches, we know a big barrier is how government can understand and learn from them without falling into the intellectual dead-end of having to ‘prove the value’ of such approaches to the Treasury. There must be a willingness to consider other types of value, otherwise community-led and owned approaches will continue to be disconnected from proposed solutions.

I believe that place can be a way to unlock thinking about what levelling up could be for our country. But I worry that the Government is still getting entangled in old metaphors and isn’t doing the work to straighten them out.

What next?

Those of us who want to change this need to build networks and practices that are credible, to combat the sense of isolation and dislocation that can come from working away in your own place, not sure if your approach is any good, because you’re not part of a wider movement.

Our community of over 200 place-based practitioners and thinkers meet every other month to share our experiences and learning about supporting inclusive and sustainable local change. The latest series of meetings are sparked by the release of the Levelling Up White Paper.

Find out more about the community of practice.

John Hitchin CEO