What does "Levelling Up" mean for decision-making on new development and infrastructure?

14 March 2022

I recently attended Built Environment Communications Group (BECG)’s seminar on:

  • the Government’s “Levelling Up” initiative;
  • the further details given by the Levelling Up white paper, which was published in February; and
  • ultimately, what all of this means for construction and infrastructure in the UK.

It was a thought-provoking session, chaired by Steve Norris (former MP & strategic adviser to several transport and infrastructure projects), speaking alongside Andy Street (Mayor of West Midlands), Lord Kerslake (former Head of the Civil Service) and Jan Bessell (Board Chair of the National Infrastructure Planning Association).

What does Levelling Up mean?

Some key points emerged from the panel discussion.

  • Levelling Up is not a north-south issue and thinking about it in those geographical terms is unhelpful. Levelling Up will mean different things to different areas – but in general terms, it is about fostering a culture of equal opportunity and development across the UK.
  • Unsurprising, Covid-19 has exacerbated inequalities of opportunity and development that were already proving to be an issue. The pandemic has therefore only increased the urgency of implementing the Levelling Up agenda.
  • Infrastructure projects are set to play an important, and arguably primary, role in achieving the Government’s aims. However, it is so much more than just building new bridges and bypasses – it is about improving quality of life. The emphasis is on green spaces; high-performing schools; more appealing high streets; taking pride in our local communities; and healthier workers.
  • Inevitably, more powers are set to be devolved to local leaders, who will therefore have a greater say on how money is spent in their areas. This is intended to be a conscious move from top-down, state-sanctioned quasi-paternalism, to local solutions for local problems. Too much centralised decision-making on spending has been criticised by local leaders – it has become part of the problem, especially where it ignored (or did not understand) the root causes of issues at a local level. As a result, more collaborative decision-making is expected in the future – central Government departments will need to work with local authorities to implement Levelling Up in practice.

Better infrastructure, better lives?

The panel reiterated the importance of investing in infrastructure in improving:

  • equality of opportunity; and
  • the quality of life of individuals.

Simply put, the UK is falling behind other European nations – our investment in critical infrastructure peaked in the Victorian times and hasn’t come anywhere near those levels in the intervening 120 years.  

It is hoped that Levelling Up will refocus attention on investing in public infrastructure projects and that more funds will be available to construct new schools and hospitals, improve rail links and provide faster broadband and 4G coverage nationwide.

A stated key priority of Levelling Up is to invest in infrastructure to strategically tackle “spatial inequalities”. However, the panel noted that the white paper only refers to existing project/spending commitments, such as £96bn for the Integrated Rail Plan and £24bn for roads and motorways. Where future strategic investment is made remains to be seen.

The panel was unanimous that a bigger spend on infrastructure projects is a prerequisite to the success of Levelling Up.

Jan Bessell was also clear that the UK would benefit from longer-term, strategic thinking when it comes to planning – which ultimately underpins the implementation of Levelling Up. An ever-changing planning system based on political cycles reduces the confidence needed to attract more private sector engagement and investment.

Levelling Up is intended to deliver more joined-up and longer-term plans for investment in the country’s infrastructure – for the benefit of everyone.