• Chris Hearld, Author |

The future of the levelling up strategy is currently uncertain but the appetite for it, from people across the UK’s towns, is voracious, find our latest report on Towns, Movers and Stayers, which urges policymakers to protect the levelling up agenda.

It was after the outbreak of Covid-19 that we, alongside think-tank Demos, explored the extent to which visions for the future of towns were shared by the people that live in them. The research was striking; residents were divided in their attitudes to jobs, newcomers, and types of investment, exposing a challenge for policymakers, and for the private sector, in delivering levelling up and spreading prosperity.

We wanted to understand more about people within the UK’s towns in the context of our country’s deep-seated regional economic imbalances.

In the meantime, plans to reduce regional inequalities have been formalised with the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper.

Stay Local, Go Far

From our perspective at KPMG, one of the most resonant aspects of the White Paper was the phrase ‘stay local, go far’, which appears in its opening pages. This recognises that geography can, and does, impact life chances for better or worse, but also that opportunity can and should be spread more widely.

The phrase stuck with me because I think KPMG has a valuable perspective on this. Our firm has a proud heritage in the regions, with offices around the country forming the foundations of our UK-wide presence and an approach which sees us working between our homes, our client sites and our offices – meaning a significant amount of our time is spent working within towns across the UK.

A priority for us is ensuring that our people are connected across our network, wherever they are in the country. This means they can access opportunities, progress their careers, and work on client projects across the firm, without having to relocate.

Furthermore, having recently made an ambitious commitment to ensuring 29 percent of our Partner group will be from working-class backgrounds by 2030, we wanted to better understand how geography limits social mobility.

As employers, businesses like ours have a role to play in understanding the challenges facing towns. ‘Brain drain’, and access to talent and skills, is a business risk, and unlocking local, productive potential to create stronger places is the prize.

Our new research explores the motivations of those leaving ex-industrial areas, or less connected and struggling coastal towns and the barriers to local investment exist in these places. It looks in depth at two archetypal and politically significant ‘Red Wall’ areas, Blyth in the North East and Mansfield in the East Midlands, where Demos spoke to the residents who have left these and similar areas for new opportunities, and those that have chosen to stay and build a life there.

Community Participation

Our focus groups found that little can be done to persuade those who choose to leave their native towns to stay, but there’s strong support for levelling up policies and a desire for the process to be made more democratic, with more decision-making power put into the hands of those who do choose to stay.

Movers and Stayers, therefore, call on policymakers to focus on improving the lives of those who choose to remain in their hometowns. This means protecting the levelling up ambition while capitalising on their enthusiasm by giving residents a voice in local investment decisions.

Dr Kate Harrison, the Lead Researcher at Demos and co-author of Movers and Stayers, says; “Not only did we find real support for levelling up, but there is also a palpable desire among people to be actively involved in the work that’s required. They understand exactly what their communities need, yet for too long they have been forced to watch from the sidelines as bad local policies have been phoned in from London with next to no local engagement.

“By giving local residents a seat at the table, the government can tap into a wealth of knowledge and ideas. More importantly still, by involving residents in the decision-making process, they are far more likely to be invested in its success. This will help legitimise the policies that levelling up will depend on.”

Examples of participatory policymaking include conducting citizens assemblies where decisions are taken on contentious topics, priorities are set to determine where development budgets should be spent and people are engaged to generate ideas for new projects.

Our report makes clear that this level of public engagement would go far beyond early stage consultation and would ensure residents - particularly those with lived experience - are actively part of the process of generating and delivering new policies. We also call on the Government to embed these principles into the wider devolution agenda; that the approval of new deals should be subject to the inclusion of a clear plan for public participation.

Embrace True Devolution

In addition, we argue that any strategy seeking to make ‘Stay local, go far’ a reality needs to embrace true devolution. People who choose to stay in our country’s many and varied towns must benefit from prospects that are enhanced through the empowered decision-making on their doorstep.

Stronger, bespoke links between education, skills and careers are critical and are an area that highlights the potential for further devolution to make a real difference.

Our report calls for devolution powers that go beyond those promised in the Levelling Up White Paper, including the devolving of skills and career advice to Combined Authorities, which should cover the whole country. It is by providing regionally tailored careers advice, further education, and skills provision - including apprenticeships - that local government can help to ensure people within their community are well equipped to contribute to the growth of new industries in their area, such as green energy in Blyth.

There’s no doubt that devolution is front and centre when it comes to making the most of the economic boosts offered to our towns.

In setting out how these areas could be better supported, and what the role of policymakers, and for businesses, should be in doing so, I hope that our research informs the levelling up agenda and adds weight to its importance as a strategy for improving the productivity of our country.