Its name may remind you of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks or perhaps of the Ministry for Magic, but public affairs practitioners would be well-advised to take the new Department for Levelling Up seriously.
Out goes the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to be replaced by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHC), prompting the editor of Local Government Chronicle to ask: “Do they give a LUHC about local government?” and Labour’s Andrew Adonis to say, “renaming departments is the last refuge of the vacuous spin doctor”.
While many are still sceptical about what levelling up means (dictionary definition: to increase or improve something in order to make it the same as other things), the Government says that it is all about bold new policy interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunities in all parts of the UK. The Department’s new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, describes it as “the defining mission of this Government”.
The immediate six-month timeframe for lobbyists is set by the amount of time that Andy Haldane, former Chief Economist at the Bank of England and then Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, has agreed to spend on a secondment as Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office. He will lead the Levelling Up Taskforce, jointly set up by the Prime Minister and Gove. Haldane has always been a controversial yet engaging figure (much like Gove) in the rather dry world of economists. His presence within Government will certainly make things happen – expect ‘delivery’ to become the watchword again. Given his working class background and non-Oxbridge education, the Government will also be keen to emphasise he is not cut from the same cloth as many permanent secretaries.
On his appointment Haldane, who defined levelling up as “one of the signature challenges of our time”, signalled that he expected to work not just in Whitehall, but also with local government and the private and voluntary sectors – a clear hint to public affairs people across the economy and civil society that he will be looking for input from their organisations.
But input about what? Earlier Government statements have suggested that new policies will be aimed at improving living standards, growing the private sector, improving health, education and policing, strengthening communities and local leadership and restoring pride in place across the country.
Both Haldane and Neil O’Brien, former adviser to Boris Johnson and now a junior minister in the rebranded Department, have also emphasised the importance of societal well-being (defined as the ability to participate, feel valued as a member of and feel committed to local communities). For Simon Clarke, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and newly appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury, “levelling up is life chances” and “giving communities like Teesside a fresh start”.
In the end a key test of whether levelling up succeeds in changing anything will turn on how the Government and others choose to measure it, since, as management consultant, Peter Drucker, famously put it “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”. Right now, we are a long way from a consensus on what should be measured and how. Some have argued that the most important indicator of progress would be changes in the distribution of public spending per head. O’Brien has suggested that the key metrics should be around jobs, income and well-being, while the Centre for Cities has proposed that the focus should be on the ability of a town, city or region to attract businesses and to provide employment opportunities to individuals.
So, lots of disagreement and lots to argue about, but, with the UK having one of the highest rates of regional inequality in the developed world, the importance of the subject is not in doubt and, from our point of view, whenever the Government’s policy agenda is freshly up for grabs that means new opportunities to influence it. Let us make the most of the next six months.
Dave McCullough is Managing Director of Riverside Communications