utumn party political conferences are often the place where we hear about visions for the future, where motions are passed, and on the odd occasion lost, and of course where party leaders (usually) receive a raucous welcome to deliver their keynote speech – sometimes even entering the stage to ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’.
The forthcoming Conservative Party conference has the feeling of a very delayed celebratory party, mixed with a degree of caution over the pandemic and the impact that might have on attendance.
Yet, this is a political conference of many firsts. It’s an opportunity for delegates to meet the new-look Cabinet and engage with key stakeholders. It is also the first time we will hear the Prime Minister deliver a conference speech in person since the 2019 general election landslide, and since the start of the pandemic. It also takes place a month before the UK hosts the United Nations Climate Change conference, better known as COP 26.
The conference returns to Manchester for the first time since 2017, having previously set up camp in Birmingham for three of the past four events. Delegates return to the North West to find a region with a drastically different political make-up. A gain of 12 local MPs and the promises of the levelling up agenda means there will be a lot of attention on what Ministers, and most importantly the Prime Minister, have to say building back better and left-behind communities.
In its manifesto in 2019, the Conservative Party said it would be "levelling up every part of the UK", which would involve investments in towns, cities, and rural and coastal areas, giving those areas more control of how decisions are made, as well as the creation of up to 10 freeports across the country.
Since then, the levelling up fund has been released, and we continue to see progress on the operational status of the National Infrastructure Bank (NIB). However, we know there’s a big difference between rhetoric and delivery. Ministers still have a mountain to climb in delivering the joined-up policy approach on levelling up which gives stakeholders the clarity they need. Put simply, people want to know what success looks like for the Government when it speaks of levelling up.
This is also why this summer ACE established a levelling up taskforce to bring together a range of professional consultancies and engineering companies operating in the built environment. The aim is simple – to evaluate and positively influence the levelling-up agenda.
The past year has created unprecedented challenges across the UK. In the immediate future, it is clear that some areas of the country will be hit harder economically than others. Those already facing a big levelling up challenge are also among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
The longer-term fallout from the pandemic adds another complex dimension to the levelling up agenda. More prosperous areas that were once economically strong are now facing increased economic challenges. We must not forget that prior to the pandemic, the UK was among the most regionally unequal countries in the developed world.
We know infrastructure and the built environment form a vital part of the levelling up challenge. Investing in infrastructure is not only beneficial economically, but also socially and environmentally. It improves quality of life and social inclusion. That is why, as part of our work for a forthcoming new report, we have explored the role of the National Infrastructure Bank and the Levelling Up Fund in delivering this high-quality infrastructure investment.
The UK’s regional inequalities are deep-rooted and complex – even well-designed policies and interventions will take time to deliver results. Spending on infrastructure that will stand the test of time, and from which future benefits will be derived, is key.
The contents of the final report will draw on case studies from across the UK and internationally. We have analysed and explored best practice, and heard from experts in the field. Right now, ACE members are working on some of our most high-profile projects – delivering tangible benefits for future generations.
The Conference is an opportunity to build that coalition of partners that are key to turning the ambition of levelling up into reality. It’s why ACE, in partnership with member Arcadis, will be hosting a fringe at the event.
The session, Levelling Up Britain’s Left Behind Communities will take place on Sunday, 3 October (3.00pm to 5.30pm). Joining ACE and Arcadis are prominent political guests - parliamentary and local government representatives and together we will explore the role of infrastructure in the Government’s levelling-up agenda and what it means in practice for coastal communities, post-industrial areas, and left-behind rural and urban areas. If you're attending the conference, I hope to see you there!
Guto Davies is Head of Policy at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE). The levelling-up taskforce is part of ACE's Places group.