Cllr Izzi Seccombe is the Leader of the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association and the Leader of Warwickshire County Council.
The landslide Conservative victory in the 2019 General Election was essentially due to two key policy offers to the electorate: the opportunity, after more than three years of wrangling, to finally get Brexit done; and the promise to ‘level up’ the UK.
Brexit was achieved in two stages, with the UK leaving the EU’s political institutions on the 31st January 2020 and the transition period ending on the 31st December 2020; but the pandemic has, understandably, meant that ‘levelling up’ has, to a large extent, been put on the back-burner.
With the recent publication of ‘Levelling Up the United Kingdom’, and its 12 specific ‘missions’ that are to be achieved by 2030, we finally have the opportunity to explain to the country at both a local and a national level what this agenda involves.
Given that the White Paper comprises 332 pages, in an article such as this it is impossible to more than scratch the surface of what is being proposed, but there are a number of proposals and initiatives that are particularly welcome from a local government perspective.
The launch of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the successor to EU structural funding, and the confirmation that it will be distributed by councils, will seize one of the opportunities of leaving the European Union, by investing in domestic priorities and targeting funding where it is needed most: building pride in place, supporting high quality skills training, and pay, employment and productivity growth. It will dramatically reduce the levels of bureaucracy associated with EU funds, enable truly local decision-making, and better target the priorities of places within the UK. It will lead to visible tangible improvements to the places where people work and live, giving communities up and down the UK more reasons to be proud of their area.
Similarly, with education being integral to levelling up, I strongly welcome the proposals for 55 Education Investment Areas and the targeted investment to ensure that every child gets the schooling they deserve.
Allied to this, it is good that the White Paper states the ambition to significantly increase the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training across the UK. Everybody should have the chance to work, retrain or increase their skills without having to move away from the area in which they were born. I was also particularly pleased to see that the LGA’s call for employment and skills Pathfinders will be acted on.
High level employment and skills provision that is tailored to local needs is a priority for councils, and local government is keen to build on existing good practice in order to play our part in meeting the ambitions contained in the White Paper.
The pandemic has shown that access to fast and reliable digital connectivity is now a necessity, not a luxury, for communities and businesses across the country. It is therefore positive that the White Paper contains a commitment to have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage by 2030.
Tackling the digital divide is crucial to levelling up every community. Councils will want to work with the Government to ensure that the roll out benefits from local expertise.
It was also good to see the inclusion of new measures and further funding packages to strengthen the work of councils and their partners in tackling a range of community safety issues.
Indeed, via the White Paper, the Government had recognised and responded to the LGA’s calls for an extension of the Safer Streets Fund. This welcome news will allow councils to continue to address crime and anti-social behaviour within their communities.
Underpinning all of this, the proposals in relation to devolution also represent an important step forward since the framework will apply to all local areas and will not impose a one-size-fits-all approach. Inviting every part of England to experience the benefits of devolution and decide for themselves what they need will be crucial to improving opportunities and life chances in local communities.
However, with additional powers come extra responsibility, and it is incumbent on all Conservative councillors who hold leadership positions to work with both the Government and their colleagues to ensure that the benefits of what is being proposed are genuinely felt across the country and in all tiers of local government.
Following two years in which the Government and the nation as a whole have understandably been focused on Covid, the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper allows us to think beyond the pandemic and envisage how we can build back better.
Our challenge now is to work together to ensure that opportunity is truly spread across the UK. It is challenge that Conservative local government is ready and eager to embrace, in order to turn the bold and ambitious vision contained in the White Paper into reality.