Consultancy firms have a range of economic, advisory and environmental skills that can help the government achieve its levelling up aims, reports Guto Davies from the Conservative party conference.
Party conference fringe events are an opportunity for organisations to make their mark on political themes while engaging with key decision makers. That is why, alongside member firm Arcadis, the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) hosted an event on levelling up at the Conservative Party Conference on Sunday 3 October 2021.
‘Levelling Up Britain’s Left Behind Communities’ was chaired by Peter Hogg, UK cities director at Arcadis and delegates also heard from former Number Ten chief of staff, Lord Gavin Barwell, Daniel Cochlin of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, Muniya Barua, director of policy and strategy at London First and Eimear Moloney, a director at Hoare Lea.
The Conservative Party is desperate to turn the rhetoric of levelling up into reality. This is now both a political and a practical issue for the government and, most importantly, voters that live in left-behind places. It knows it is under pressure to make progress before the next election and clearly define what success looks like. Delegates that attended the ACE/Arcadis fringe event highlighted the urgent need for government to deliver short-term wins.
This is, of course, an extremely busy policy space with almost ten fringe events a day planned on levelling up during conference. Despite this, our voice and message to government is clear – our members have a unique perspective in the levelling up debate, and as the delivery partner of choice for government, a vital role to play.
Former chief of staff to prime minister Theresa May, Lord Barwell, outlined the scope for the session’s discussion. “We need to start with an understanding of why we’ve had this imbalance in our economy for so long,” Barwell said. But as Daniel Cochlin of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership pointed out, “we need more meat on the bones.”
One of the major discussion points during our event was around the potential impact of Michael Gove’s new Levelling Up department. Replacing the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, it is seen by many as the new driving force for levelling up, with the prime minister’s former advisor Neil O’Brien also joining the department. However, as Eimear Moloney of Hoare Lea put it, people, “generally don’t care about the new name, they just want to know if can deliver on the areas of responsibility.”
Delivery is also a key theme emerging from ACE’s levelling-up research, which was presented by Peter Hogg, who also chairs ACE’s levelling up taskforce. He highlighted that our members, “have a unique mix of design, economic, environmental and advisory skills, well-matched to the multi-faceted challenges of levelling up.”
The panel discussed the importance of upgrading existing infrastructure stock, highlighting that 80% of buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built. But they also touched on the fact that levelling up is about more than pouring concrete in a bid to kickstart growth. On the same day as our fringe event, Neil O’Brien outlined what levelling up meant to him and argued that alongside economic growth and productivity should be ideas around empowering local leaders and communities, spreading opportunity and improving public services whilst restoring local pride.
No matter what your perspective on the issue and the political significance of the theme, it is clear that the discussions on levelling up have only just begun.
Guto Davies is head of policy at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.