Last week, we joined the 2021 Solace Summit: Leading from the Front Line, meeting with leaders across local government to come together around levelling up, climate, the future of work and much more. I was fortunate to join the Levelling Up panel alongside Pam Smith, CEO of Stockport Council; Kersten England, CEO of Bradford Council; and Tom Walker, Director Levelling Up Unit of Cabinet Office. This is a write up of a talk I gave as part of that panel.
Good morning. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Matt Skinner, CEO of FutureGov. I’d like to sneak in some exciting news. If you’ve seen our logo on Twitter or the conference website, we’re currently transitioning into a new organisation called TPXimpact. This brings a collection of purpose-minded organisations together as we continue working across public services and health, along with many organisations who may not think of themselves as ‘gov’ but who are all focused on the future.
Maximising the opportunities of Levelling Up
I was asked to reflect on what local authorities are doing or can be doing, to maximise the opportunities presented by the ‘levelling up’ agenda.
I think levelling up needs to start with a conversation about how you as leaders can do even better for our places, particularly in the midst of some of the hardest, most complex challenges our sector faces; a global pandemic, climate crisis, energy crisis, Brexit. Over the last 18+ months, you’ve all moved at an incredible pace to make urgent and necessary change happen. How do we consolidate on those goals? What radical change is needed to not only keep that momentum but maximise the opportunities in front of us in levelling up?
Through the pandemic, we’ve had the privilege of working with several local authorities up and down the country, including Camden Council, Trafford Council and many others, to support their COVID-19 response and recovery. At the same time, we’ve also been working alongside a consortium of partners and MHCLG to deliver the Towns Fund programme. Common across all of this work is place leadership, different types of collaboration and the new skills needed to solve the challenges ahead.
You’ve proven complex problems are best dealt with locally, so don’t wait for central government to level up. Time and again we’ve witnessed centralised approaches to complex problems fail. And instead, we’ve seen success where good local leadership, vision and partnerships have been in place. Examples include the amazing localised responses to getting food parcels delivered to the most vulnerable at the height of the crisis and the centralised vaccination programme that would have been unachievable without well-organised local provision.
Coming out of the height of the crisis, we’ve been working with local authorities to build on these partnerships and try new methods of organising their communities to better understand and work through local problems. For example in Blackpool Council, where neighbourhood assemblies brought partners and local people together online and in-person to discuss local climate priorities and agree on how to use local resources and with Camden Council where a similar model was used to help communities inform the design of new community housing infrastructure in one of their neighbourhoods
There’s an opportunity, before levelling up is properly defined, to be agreeing your local priorities. This will require really understanding the pressing inequalities in your place and using more deliberative processes like assemblies, that involve local people, your MPs and your partners in a conversation about priorities. This would also be a great way of taking them on the journey of creating a strong vision for your place.
A strong vision and story for place
So what do we mean by a strong vision and story for place? Michael Gove MP has said that levelling-up is about “empowering local government” and “allowing communities and councillors to take back control”. If this genuinely happens, then I think levelling up could be transformative.
Levelling up needs to start with a long-term vision for local places and a coordinated local approach to that change. The opportunity right now is to be creative and radical in that vision and to double down on the local partnerships you’ve been building over the last 18 months.
Think about the narrative of your place and work on telling that story. Understand local needs and set ambitious goals to address them.
Strong local partnerships are essential
Our work through the Towns Fund taught us that working with businesses and strong local partnerships are essential to build local vision. This government wants close involvement from local businesses and local MPs in determining levelling up action.
In all of the work we’ve been doing with local authorities over the last 18 months the areas where the response to COVID-19 has been strongest are where there has been a strong vision for place, leadership pulling in the same direction and a willingness to work together, often in very different ways than we’ve done things in the past.