Is the intangible of levelling up becoming tangible?

Are we into the next phase of the levelling up policy? It certainly feels like it.

Public First’s work this spring suggests a change in the way we think about levelling up, likely brought on by the publication of Michael Gove’s long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper in the spring.

We seem to be moving from a question of “why” (as in “why does levelling up need to happen?”) and towards “what” (as in “what does it actually deliver in practice?”).

Three pieces of PF work published in the last fortnight have actively sought to think about levelling up in this tangible way; to ask what it will look like if it succeeds.

Firstly, we had the publication yesterday of our report for Historic England into public attitudes in the Red Wall to local historic buildings. This focus group study – we think, a first – looked at the role that industrial heritage could and, perhaps, should play in helping towns and small cities in “levelling up country” to rediscover their sense of place and their civic pride.

It was no coincidence that some of the framing for our final recommendations tallied with the way the LU white paper talked about local heritage – specifically the £95m High Streets Heritage Action Zones. It became clear through this work that making use of the built fabric of industrial heritage – in a pragmatic fashion – could be a cornerstone of how economic regeneration can be successfully tied to a renaissance in civic pride. Indeed, we are hopeful that this project will support some of the thinking around urbanism as Michael Gove’s vision becomes a practical reality.

I also wrote about it here for CapX.

Next, we had the publication two weeks ago of our Levelling Up Impact Report for Teesside University (TU). This document – also, we think, the first of its kind – took the central principles of the white paper and applied them to an institution (in this case, TU). And then it asked – after an exercise in local qualitative research – what more the institution could do to help drive levelling up harder and faster in the place that it serves – namely the Tees Valley

Finally, we had the publication on Saturday of the results of a survey we carried out for the Sutton Trust into the policies the public believes should be introduced to boost social mobility. The twist was that we weighted the sample such that we could contrast national results with those in Education Improvement Areas (EIAs), the local authorities identified in the LU white paper as in need of greater attention. It was covered in the Times here.

Full of fascinating insight, it was very, very interesting to discover, for example, that normal people in EIAs were even more enthused by apprenticeships than those in the rest of the country. Delivering on this will surely be the subject of major ministerial thinking in the DfE in the months ahead.

Interesting, then, to find ourselves moving from the intangible “theory of levelling up” into a phase when we might start thinking about delivering it. Hopefully some of Public First’s insight begins to give some sense of what that might look like in practice.