Demystifying the Levelling Up Agenda

Rob Elvin, Squire Patton Boggs

By Rob Elvin, Manchester office managing partner and solicitor-advocate at global law firm Squire Patton Boggs.

Across the UK, there are deep-rooted inequalities reflected in our income, skills, living standards and life expectancy. These inequalities are so vast that the UK is recognised as one of the most regionally imbalanced economies in the industrialised world. As the UK embarks on its independence from the EU, tackles climate change and embraces the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0), these trends have the potential to expand divisions further, unless harnessed to provide economic opportunities.

A systemic change is required to ensure that the North maximises its potential and the “Levelling up Agenda” provides a pathway to success. The Northern Research Group (NRG) is a group of 50 or so Conservative MPs who have big ideas for a “global Britain”, envisaging the North as an attractive landing pad for foreign investors, new business, highly paid jobs and international trade. This starts with the levelling up fund – a £4.8 billion investment from central government to try to make the North a more attractive region to live, work and invest in.

To promote investment, northern cities, towns and surrounding areas need to be attractive places to work and live. The levelling up fund can support smaller towns to revive local business and rejuvenate a sense of community. This is especially important for rural towns and coastal villages considered “left behind”, in comparison to the development we see in major towns and cities.

Critical to levelling up is investment in digital infrastructure, as many of these constituencies currently lack fibre optic broadband. Such digital investment is essential where the modern economy is increasingly reliant on digital engagement. In addition, following the announcement of a £7.1 billion fund for housing developments in the latest spending review, the region will see construction of new, sustainable housing developments. This is beneficial for drawing families and new skills to the area, as well as building communities. However, such developments will only be successful where there are jobs to support a community.

The North is home to a strong manufacturing base. The manufacturing sector provides a significant portion of the UK economy, contributing over 10% of domestic product, and totalling 44% of the UK’s exports, which translates to a £273 billion contribution to the UK economy. As the world undergoes a fourth industrial revolution, it is vital that the sector receives supportive policy and financial investment via the levelling up fund, in order to innovate and compete globally. If the North has a world-leading manufacturing industry that has embraced IR4.0, the region will see the creation of jobs, new skills and private investment.

Similarly, the region is optimally located to play a significant role in the transition to renewable energy, through geographic location and existing focus from energy industry leaders. The announcement of the Ten-Point Plan kick-started the race to carbon neutrality by 2050 – a race that has potential to put the UK, and the North, on a global platform. With investment, the region’s energy sector will have potential to compete globally, drawing foreign investment and skills to the region.

The levelling up fund will also support physical connectivity in the North. The region has a number of airports with potential to connect the North on a global scale; however, these airports and surrounding communities require investment to capitalise on their potential. A “hub-and-spoke” approach is being advocated to connect business hubs and demonstrate the ease of connectivity, making the region a more attractive place to do business.

Investment in our leading sectors and regional connectivity will undoubtedly improve the northern economy. This is especially important in a post-Brexit landscape, where the UK needs to capitalise on this unique opportunity to reframe its place on a global platform. The result will be new jobs, enhanced skills, better pay and improved living standards, overall helping to reduce inequalities.

2020 taught us that we are more adaptable and resilient than we thought and accelerated changes to the way we work and live more in one year than had been the case in the previous five years. The North has the potential to seize opportunities created from agendas such as increased homeworking and online shopping to provide the perfect environment for present and future generations to want to live, work and play in.

Squire Patton Boggs is one of the headline sponsors of the upcoming Invest North conference which will bring together leaders from across the North to set the agenda for what happens next.