The government’s levelling up white paper’s ambitions are laudable, but its proposed execution falls far short of the mark, says Ramboll’s Stefanie O’Gorman.
If we had been invited to draw up a wish list for the government’s recently published levelling up white paper, equality of access to town centre services, not limited by transport costs, would have sat high on the agenda. This wish list would also have included the provision of different types of housing within walking distance of the daily range of services residents need and solutions to embed climate resilience in any transformations undertaken.
However, when this month finally saw the publication of the levelling up white paper, the reality of the government’s scheme to breathe a new lease of life into our ‘undervalued’ town centres has proved too fragmented to be able to realise the meaningful changes our citizens and their future require. The white paper’s ambitions are laudable, but the proposed execution falls far short of the mark.
A place-based approach
An essential miscalculation lies in the structure of the white paper’s funding. Funding regional transformation needs to be tackled with holistic, place-based visions. Separate funding pots are not effective and single-solution funding will not deliver the multi-system outcomes required by towns and cities.
Place-based approaches do not pre-determine a solution or intervention, but instead offer funding models which allow for tailored strategies that can tackle multiple challenges, catering for the variation of settlement patterns, and deliver multiple benefits. This requires oversight and resources for authorities to be able to plan long-term across policy areas. However, reframing the concept of funding a solution to funding an outcome would enable local authorities to package up projects in a way that maximises their value.
A valuable example could have been found in Scotland where 20-minute neighbourhoods have been embedded as a nationwide policy, in rural as well as urban settlements, to provide communities with their day-to-day needs within a 20-minute walk of their home.
Crucially, baseline studies undertaken to support this national approach showed that many communities already have the services and infrastructure in place to operate as 20-minute neighbourhoods, just not to a sufficient quality to enable the required behavioural changes. However, instead of the white paper providing a strategy which local areas can tailor to their bespoke improvement needs, the levelling up agenda firmly places the burden of fighting for funding on local authorities.
Transport – equity of access for all
Reliability of transport has long been an issue across the country. However, for the poorest areas, while ensuring transport modes are more reliable is an undoubtably positive move, the white paper fails to address the more pressing issue of the cost of public transport. Without addressing cost, equity of access for all cannot be achieved. Approaches such as the 20-minute neighbourhood, which focus on inclusive, walkable and sustainable designs, would have been one effective way to open up mobility solutions for the benefit of all.
Furthermore, comparing the levelling up white paper to urban regeneration projects like GALLANT, which aims to support Glasgow’s net zero by 2030 ambitions, highlights just how glaringly absent climate resilience is from the new agenda. Indeed, more than 60 organisations led by the Wildlife Countryside Link have recently written to the government to highlight their concerns and to call for communities to instead be transformed into a “fairer and greener image”. We must integrate robust climate resilience plans into urban regeneration if we want transformation of urban areas to last. For instance, GALLANT allocates funding for flood storage and developing low-carbon energy solutions to help the area’s citizens co-create clean energy demand.
The UK’s regional town centres need a levelling up agenda, but they deserve a more carefully considered, inclusive strategy. Whilst the white paper covers many essential aspects of a successful place, our towns will suffer from the report’s piecemeal vision.
Stefanie O’Gorman is the director of sustainable economics at Ramboll.