There is much in the government white paper for construction to get behind and lots of opportunities to contribute, says Simon Rawlinson

Simon Rawlinson New

Way back in the day, I studied geography at university.  At the time, the creative destruction of the Thatcher revolution was driving “levelling down” at a speed and a  scale from which many communities have never recovered. Today, Levelling Up the United Kingdom, the government’s flagship policy unveiled up Michael Gove, features analysis, data and arguments that could have been made at any time over the past 40 or 50 years. The problems examined are complex, multi-faceted and deeply engrained.  

What makes the white paper published at the start of this month important is the aim to set a long-term agenda that, like net zero carbon, should sit outside politics as a shared endeavour.

Boris Johnson forged his vision of levelling up as a shape-shifting vote-winner that could mean whatever the electorate wanted it to mean. The success of the concept certainly contributed to changing the UK’s political geography. 

>> Also read: Industry underwhelmed by Gove’s levelling up vision

At the time of his election victory in December 2019, many red wall voters claimed that their support was “loaned” to the Tories. Does this  white paper have enough substance to show that Whitehall is listening, and payback is coming?

The white paper initially took a lot of flak, partly for its rather otherworldly analysis, dwelling on the fate of Jericho, Nineveh and Alexandria, but also for failing to bring new money to table. In the brutal world of politics, both were easy attack lines – but also partial truths.

The money may not exactly be “new” but it is mostly earmarked for the spending period 2022 to 2025.  

The analysis is detailed and conclusive and I cannot imagine a future administration having to argue a case for levelling up again. The data is clear, even if the analysis is sometimes obscure, and on the cash front, it is also not difficult to find money within the paper.  

There are over £90bn of funded programmes on pages 1 and 2 of the executive summary alone. The money may not exactly be “new” but it is mostly earmarked for the spending period 2022 to 2025.  

Even with increased spending, austerity-era cuts have not been reversed, particularly with respect to local government. However, strategy backed by spending generates opportunity. It cannot be passed up.

Ensuring that all of this policy effort and expenditure makes a long-term difference is one of the defining challenges of the 2020s. Two years after the last election, the paper’s 12 missions clearly show how fundamental and complex the issues being tackled are.  

Getting a man on the moon – one of the last century’s great “missions” – was incredibly challenging to achieve but also easy to measure.  Even agreeing on the outcomes for levelling up will be controversial.

But for all of the brickbats, I am optimistic about levelling up. This is partly because of the good policy work in the white paper and also because the missions help to crystalise areas where industries such as construction can do more to help now. While at times the white paper reads rather like an academic treatise, there are still plenty of practical steps to take, and potentially the resources to support them.

So, what do I like in the white paper and what actions should our sector consider?  Firstly, I admire the thoroughness of the research base. Some might say that it states the obvious, but you need the data to make the right decisions.

The missions help to crystallise areas where industries such as construction can do more to help now

Secondly, the six “capitals”, or key factors that will help drive levelling up, are useful because they emphasise that missions will move forward on multiple fronts, and that they have to be treated as a dynamic system of systems. I also like the idea of the missions themselves, not because they have the glamour of the moon-shot, but because they have the scale and criticality that should place them beyond day-to-day politics.

Parties can argue over the best way to improve primary education but the mission to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes should remain consistent, highly visible and measured. That has not always been the case.

So, what do we do now?  We could wait for the legislation to devolve more power to combined authorities and counties. We could wait for the extra money targeting health and education to make a difference. Or we could chalk it off as another missed opportunity and just wait for another general election to come along Alternatively, could construction take a cue from the white paper and make levelling up a movement, a bit like other sectoral priorities such as Construct Zero?

If you take a look at the missions, it is readily apparent that many are inextricably linked to what we do and how our businesses operate. The pay and productivity mission is not only about infrastructure and inward investment, it is also about the health and growth potential of SMEs and the effectiveness of the workforce.

Construction’s own productivity challenge is at the heart of the levelling up agenda, so we have a role to play.  Similarly, the skills mission and construction’s workforce challenge are joined at the hip.  

>> Also read: Gove’s proposals are not enough to level up a town like mine

>> Also read: Where is the money to support Gove’s bold plans?

Greater incentives for local employment and support for local training, leveraged by value-based procurement, also highlight the reciprocal relationship between our industry and the communities who we work with and for. I am also struck by the mission to restore pride in place and its links with what construction does, not only because of the continuing role of regeneration in the levelling up mix but also because of the industry’s long-term strength in leveraging projects to support local causes and communities.  

So much of what we do is already aligned to the missions, so we should celebrate and make more explicit our alignment to the vital cause of eliminating inequality in the UK.

The fate of the levelling up policy hangs in the balance. Being so closely linked to the prime minister, the policy’s aspiration could soon be forgotten. However, the missions are built for the long run and the problems will not  solve themselves. Levelling up is aligned to the interests of our sector and, regardless of the politics, we should all get behind it. 

Simon Rawlinson is a partner at Arcadis and a member of the Construction Leadership Council