In his flagship levelling up white paper Michael Gove has set a path for the future of UK construction. What does this white paper actually say, and crucially is it enough?
The levelling up paper is made up of 12 key areas, however most relevant are the focus on Local Leadership, and Pride in Place.
Arguably, Local Leadership is the most prominent part of Gove’s herculean 12 ‘missions’ with its focus on devolution. Gove signals a shift away from Whitehall towards a system change implementing the “London style mayors” in other regions of the UK, with nine areas so far being invited to negotiate these powers. What this will mean, and whether a London mayoral system will serve these areas, will have to be seen. As Zoe Billingham, co-director from the Centre for Progressive Policy’ states “without fresh funding in the next budget, local leaders will lack the fiscal firepower to deliver on the Government’s good intentions”.
Some could argue, and the paper itself actually references, how this idea of devolution through mayors has been largely inspired by Europe, especially Paris where the mayor has greater powers in terms of welfare, schools and some aspects of health. An interesting aspect to watch will be what this devolution will mean in terms of planning regulations on a national and local level.
Under the banner of Pride in Place and ‘Restoring a sense of community, local pride and belonging’, the ambition to regenerate 20 of England’s towns and cities is highlighted. This is heavily focussed on remediating brownfield land, and a combined public and private sector approach to ‘transformational developments’ including ‘housing, retail and business in sustainable, walkable, beautiful new neighbourhoods’. This will be supported by the Office for Place which is currently an advisory board for the government’s Planning for the Future. Again, what this means for the future in terms of planning or construction is not really expanded upon.
Interestingly, as MACE’s CEO Jason Millett comments in Property Week, the regeneration of derelict areas is a step forward but, the report could go further to put sustainability truly at the heart of the levelling up fund by mentioning initiatives such as retrofitting older properties. Millet goes on to point out that ‘with 80% of building stock by 2050 already built, failing to reduce the emissions from these buildings could further disadvantage local communities.’
How the report will ultimately address sustainability, let alone how Net Zero will be managed given greater powers of devolution, is not clear. Yet, as Stephanie Hyde, chief executive at JLL UK states, the “substantial commitments to funding for regeneration and housebuilding in the Levelling Up white paper underlines the central role that the real estate industry has to play in supporting this important agenda”.
In Copper’s recent levelling up podcast featuring the Financial Times’ Whitehall Editor, Sebastian Payne, Payne states how the levelling up white paper is the first serious granular attempt to address the national disparity that came to the fore during the 2016 Brexit referendum and 2019 general election. Payne describes it as a fundamentally interventionalist approach which demonstrates a new conservative steer away from traditional party by-lines. Payne goes on to state the major problem for the white paper will be the investment that’s required and if a more fiscally conservative government is willing to back it.
Overall, there has been a mixed response to the paper, with the British Property Federation saying that the delivery of the government’s ambition needs to be “bolder” and that the paper itself could have gone further. Where it has excelled, and as Stephen Beechy, Group Sector Director at Wates Group highlighted, it shows how the construction industry has a critical role to play in delivering government targets. It will certainly be interesting to see how far this paper will go in practice to revolutionise the way in which the UK system operates, and whether the 2030 deadline will be met. Ultimately, we will have to wait and see, and as Andrew McFarlane, Head of Regions at Colliers has said, we hope that the paper goes far enough to “level up our regions once and for all”.