Michael Gove unveiled the Government’s flagship Levelling Up White Paper last week – but many of our experts remain cautious about what it will achieve.

We asked members of our Expert Forum to give their views on the Secretary of State’s 12 levelling up missions, published last Wednesday. A number of positives were observed but many of our panel were wary.

Here’s what they said:

David Jones, managing director of planning and development consultancy Evans Jones, said: “Following the Planning White Paper in 2020 (from which virtually no policy changes transpired), it is difficult to get too excited about the latest white paper.

“Clearly the Government continues to grapple with the localism agenda and devolution of power.  The intent to reinforce the Green Belt is a regressive step when what is really required is an honest root and branch review and re-appraisal.

“The desire to positively plan for employment is well overdue, but as always, the devil is in the detail. Whilst the intent of the levelling up agenda is to be applauded, ultimately housing and job creation is required where people want to live and work, this tends to be (rightly or wrongly) the South and South East rather than the Midlands or the North.  The jury is thus out; more empty rhetoric or real intent to facilitate change and level up for good?”

Julia Mountford, associate director for Savills in Reading, said: “The long-awaited white paper is intended to explain the oft-repeated mantra of ‘levelling-up’.

“Those who have raised concerns that levelling up could bring with it a levelling down of more economically successful areas such as the Thames Valley, may be encouraged that the paper includes details of some investment and initiatives directed towards the region.

“Notably, for the Thames Valley, this encompasses the delivery of six new hospitals by the end of the decade, including the ‘rebuild of the Royal Berkshire’ in Reading and a ‘new hospital at Basingstoke & North Hampshire’. There is also a focus on the South Central Institute of Technology.”

David Bainbridge, director for Savills in Oxford, said: “The prospect of further devolved powers to local government should, in theory, open up opportunities for more coordinated development plans and regeneration strategies.

“To be effective this requires support in terms of both resources and funding in order to deliver infrastructure and investment priorities and support local enterprise. The white paper signals a renaissance for strategic planning; a welcome return from its demise in 2010.

“We should expect more partnership boards between local authorities with a shared vision, such as that seen in Oxfordshire, cutting across sectors and based on a clearly regional economic geography.

“What is essential is that the potential for growth is grasped in all parts of the country, delivering the jobs and housing that is much needed to forge a recovery from Covid.

‘There was, however, no announcement within the paper on growth targets such as housing and jobs and so we should expect more on this later this year.”

Mike Shearn, chief operating officer for Haslams, said: “The announcement around bringing all rental properties up to a minimum standard is a good thing.

“We actively manage a quality portfolio of over 1,600 properties and we very much treat both landlords and tenants as valued customers.

“Unfortunately, there are others that don’t and, consequently, there are still a lot of rogue landlords out there offering very poor living standards and this needs to end.

“Hopefully this initiative will go some way to achieving this. As with every high-level announcement the devil will be in the detail in terms of how one defines ‘minimum standard’ and consequently the impact in terms of costs are still to be understood.”

Mark Slater, design director for WWA, said: “The Levelling Up White Paper tables ambitious targets for the sharing of the UK’s success, a goal which can only be positive and one we welcome. However, we must not forget that inequality is very much a local problem across the whole of the UK and levelling up quality of life within the UK’s neighbourhoods is key.

“Quality of housing is an important factor and investment in housing from both public and private sectors needs to be affordable at a local level and not simply be on a regional basis, otherwise disparity between the UK’s richest and poorest will actually increase.”

Brian Dowling, partner with Boyes Turner, said: “The point of ‘levelling up’, supported by a clear democratic mandate from the Red Wall, is to increase opportunities outside of the South East.

“The white paper expressly states that the South East is seen as ‘over heated’ because of the amount of private employment, and intends to create better communities and opportunities elsewhere to relieve the pressure.

“The watering hose of housing and infrastructure funding is going to be deliberately moved from the unaffordable Southern flower beds to the left behind North and Midlands vegetable patches. Presumably the intent is to reduce internal migration to the South East from graduates and job seekers rather than encourage us to ‘head north, kids’.

“There is a threat of the South East missing out, and as we all know there are inequalities within the region. It is good to see that a number of such areas will receive specific assistance.  This doesn’t appear to specifically favour Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire though.

“My concern is that with all the different devolution regimes and flavours of local and mayoral authority, you start having different democratic rights and influence in different parts of the UK.  You are then just leaving behind or ignoring different people to previously, because they live in an area that is prosperous. This can’t be right and democratic inequality needs to be guarded against.

“On housing, specifically, there will be a push to improve the basic standard of all private rented housing by ensuring a 50 per cent fall in ‘non decent’ homes which should improve people’s lives but also shake out some homes that could be renovated and sold into the first time buyer sector.”

Katy Davis, head of London planning for Carter Jonas, said: “To replicate London-style devolution in the planning system, regional mayors, including those cited – Andy Street, Ben Houchen and Andy Burnham – will require an extension of their remit.

“Without being given the same powers as Sadiq Khan, as the Mayor of London, and the Greater London Authority, they will be unable to truly develop a development strategy – their equivalent of the London Plan – or have the authority to call in, approve or refuse applications of strategic importance.

“That said, the capital’s system is not without its flaws and the additional layer of administration can cause significant delay and uncertainty, which inevitably impacts the ability to deliver housing.”

Katja Wigham, partner and head of commercial property for Blandy & Blandy, said: “We fully support any proposals that will help to strengthen and sustain the country’s economy and support the people of the UK as we emerge from one of the biggest economic shocks in several centuries.

“Factors ranging from the pandemic to the climate emergency will continue to reshape how we live and work in the future and central governments, local authorities and businesses must continue to adapt and innovate to meet both the arising challenges and opportunities head on.”

Image: Policy Exchange, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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