Voter ID gets Code Red

Picture credit: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/why-the-governments-mandatory-voter-id-plans-are-a-terrible-idea/

Jason Lowther & Chris Game

‘Code Red’, for anyone even approaching the generation of this blog’s more senescent author, has to cue the memorable final Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson courtroom scene in Aaron Sorkin’s film, A Few Good Men. Indeed, said author has actually adapted and used it previously in these very columns:

Lieut. Kaffee (Cruise): “Did you order the Code Red?”  Col. Jessup (Nicholson): “YOU’RE GODDAMNED RIGHT I DID!!!”

In the film, ‘Code Red’ is a term used for any extra-judicial punishment or action taken against US marines for the purposes of humiliation or worse. Its function is, essentially, to deal with issues that can’t be solved using the normal legal framework.

In substantial contrast, the UK Government’s Code Red, though hardly a regular feature of our media’s political reporting, is at the very core of our modern-day governmental system. It is a (arguably the) key instrument of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), the Government’s centre of expertise for infrastructure and major projects, reporting to the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury.

Formed in 2016, the IPA’s intended function is to increase government efficiency and save public money by monitoring and ‘scoring’ the viability of its literally hundreds of infrastructure and major projects … and does so with an effectiveness that has some Ministers in the present Government viewing it as more of a PI(the)A.  

This already substantial introduction does have a local government-relevant point – promise!  And it is no blog’s function to deliver lecturettes, which in this instance are both available and well illustrated, from the Institute for Government and the IPA itself in its very recent 2022 Annual Report.

What follow, therefore, are a few shortish paragraphs outlining the IPA’s work, and two graphics from that 2022 Report worth, if not the proverbial thousand words, certainly a good many. We then focus on the issue of voter ID in England, reporting the government’s own assessment on the risks involved, and conclude that Government has still not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.

The focus of the IPA’s work is the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP), comprising this year 235 projects with a total Whole Life Cost of £678bn and estimated “monetised benefits” of £726bn, delivered by 18 departments and their arm’s-length bodies.

The projects are divided functionally into four categories, biggest-spending being Infrastructure & Construction (70 projects: £339 bill. whole life cost; £356 bill. “monetised benefits”) – high investment projects, including improving the UK’s energy, environment, transport, telecoms, sewage and water systems, and constructing new public buildings. Dominated financially, and in the IPA’s ‘unfeasible’ delivery confidence rankings, by the Dept for Transport’s HS2 (£72 – 98 billion) and Crossrail (£19 billion+) projects.

Transformation and service delivery covers projects changing ways of working to improve the relationship between government and the UK people, and harnessing new technology. Example: Vaccines Task Force.

Military Capability ispretty self-explanatory. Example: the Future Combat Air System – clever, mid-2030s stuff like uncrewed aircraft and advanced data systems.

ICT projects enable the “transition from old legacy systems to new digital solutions” to equip government departments for the future. Example: Emergency Services Mobile Communications.

Now to the interesting bit: the actual ‘confidence rankings’, or in the above cases of HS2 and Crossrail ‘no confidence rankings’. The official term is Delivery Confidence Assessments (DCAs): judgements of the likelihood of a project delivering its objectives to time and cost.

In essence, it’s a basic traffic light system. Green represents high likelihood of successful delivery of the project on time, budget and quality; amber: successful delivery feasible, but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention; and ‘Code Red’: unachievable, not a cat in hell’s chance; major issues everywhere, with project definition, schedule, budget, benefits – all at this stage apparently irresolvable.

Given the variables involved, it sounds more than a touch crude, and two additional ratings were added: amber/green – successful delivery probable, if given constant attention; and amber/red – successful delivery doubtful, major risks apparent in numerous key areas, urgent action needed.

Usefully added, it seemed, as unqualified amber regularly took between 40% and 50% of ratings (see Fig.7 below). But no, looked at another way, the “average project rating worsened from Amber/Green in 2013 to Amber in 2020” (p.16). It obviously couldn’t possibly be the quality of the proposed projects, so it had to be the assessment system, which accordingly for the 2022 assessments was changed.

But oops! The number of red assessments nearly quadrupled, almost equalling the previous four years’ red totals between them – but that’s OK, because the average project rating, we are assured, “has improved over the past two years”, though it’s not entirely transparent in the second flow chart.

Which brings us back to Code Reds.  Unlock Democracy, the democratic reform campaign group – and also the Daily Mirror – reported last week that “the Government’s own rating system has given the Elections Bill implementation a code red, which is defined as successful delivery of the project appear[ing] to be unachievable.”  Followed by the Association of Electoral Administrators announcing that it “no longer believes it is possible to successfully introduce Voter ID in May 2023.”

The Government’s “Electoral Integrity Programme (EIP)” has been red rated in the IPA’s annual report (see page 58).  The report summarises the Programme as ‘implementing changes arising from the Elections Bill. The Elections Bill makes provision about the administration and conduct of elections, including provision to strengthen the integrity of the electoral process. Reforms will cover: overseas electors; voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens; the designation of a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission; the membership of the Speaker’s Committee; the Electoral Commission’s functions in relation to criminal proceedings; financial information to be provided by a political party on applying for registration; preventing a person being registered as a political party and being a recognised non-party campaigner at the same time; regulation of expenditure for political purposes; disqualification of offenders for holding elective offices; information to be included in electronic campaigning material’.

DLUHC’s commentary on this result noted the deteriorating assessment and added: ‘The IPA Gate 0 Review of February 2022 concluded that the programme Delivery Confidence Assessment is rated Red and that the programme needs to address key risks related to the suitability of the structure, approach and governance given its complexity and delivery focus, suitability of its minimum viable and digital products, and its lack of contingency to deliver against immovable deadlines’.

Reassuringly, the department felt that ‘the programme is addressing these points’.   Meanwhile, the estimated ‘whole life costs’ of the programme jumped from just under £120m to over £145m.

Unlock Democracy’s Tom Brake has reportedly written to Levelling Up SoS Greg Clark saying ‘It would be highly risky to attempt the first roll out of photo voter ID for the largest election in the UK, without having tested it on lower turnout elections beforehand’.  This echoes Jason Lowther’s comment on this blog almost a year ago that ‘The Government has not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.  Until issues such as costs and access are fully addressed, it needs to proceed with caution’.

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he worked with West Midlands Combined Authority, led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

The role of scrutiny in navigating our new health and care economy

Picture credit: https://www.gponline.com/deadline-extended-gp-access-cover-england-brought-forward/article/1456385

Cllr Ketan Sheth

Mortality rates during the pandemic laid bare the health inequalities that exist across the country. Behind these figures lie human stories and grieving families that should remind us of the urgency and importance of understanding and addressing these inequalities.

In Brent, an ethnically diverse North West London borough, we recently set out to do just that.

Systems thinking

We know that Brent residents, who are from ethnic minority communities, disabled, or who are in poverty, experience significant health inequalities; but what does that look like in practice? How are our healthcare systems contributing to and/or compounding inequality? And what can be done to resolve this challenge?

Usually, GPs are the first point of call when someone is not feeling quite right. They ought to help everyone to access timely and safe healthcare. Therefore, reviewing access to GP services is critical and we decided to focus a dedicated scrutiny task group for eight months to report.

By giving ourselves time to understand this complex area in detail, we developed a deep comprehension of the landscape we were going to scrutinise. Patient voices are at the heart of our work, and we worked closely with Brent Healthwatch to ensure those from communities that have been under-represented in these conversations in the past, as well as those experiencing the worst health outcomes, were able to articulate and share their experiences.

Also, the task group held a number of evidence sessions over the course of six months, which were attended by stakeholders across Brent’s health economy. This included council officers, local commissioners and service providers.

All of this enabled the team to make a number of practical recommendations to  Brent Council and NHS partners.

Our work focused on three pivotal areas: Demand, Access and Barriers

With the dynamics of our healthcare and well-being landscape changing locally as well as nationally, it is more vital than ever to ensure all our residents have equality of access and consumption of healthcare services.

We found repeatedly that some groups of patients experience significant, and unnecessary, barriers, specifically:

• Patients of low-income

• Patients with a disability

• Older patients

• Patients whose first language is not English

• Children and young people

• Refugees and asylum seekers

• Patients who cannot access digital technology

Knowing this, GP services must seek to reduce and resolve the barriers experienced by patients, with a focus on deprivation, ethnicity, disability, and other protected characteristics as described in the Equalities Act 2010, if we are to execute our duties under the Act.

We recognise that rising demand, changing patient expectations and workforce retention issues continue to place pressures on primary care. Therefore, it is essential that the NHS continues to plan for this and uses the expertise of healthcare professionals across the system.

The digital transformation to healthcare, brought about by the pandemic, although helpful to some, introduced additional barriers for other people and communities.

In acknowledging the varying levels of ease in which patients access GP service, we strongly believe an access and treatment standard ought to be developed. This will ensure that Brent residents experience consistent and high levels of service: whether their requests are routine or urgent, focused on physical or mental wellness; or made via the telephone, online or in-person.

Our work has been conducted in the spirit of cooperation and partnership, and particularly, we look forward to continuing our dialogue and work with our partners across Brent’s health economy to evolve our shared vision of GP access across Brent.

Cllr Ketan Sheth is Chair of Brent Council’s Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee

Women in (West Midlands) Governance: A patchy metamorphosis

Chris Game

Yes, I did blog really rather recently on the topic of ‘Women in local and national governance’; and yes, I did conclude it by pledging to “retire gracefully from this particular field of research”.

But that was before I found myself fruitlessly upending my flat for anything conceivably useful to the Ukrainian refugees for whom one of my ward councillors was commendably collecting. Finding virtually nothing I could honourably offer, it was cash to the Disasters Emergency Committee, who assured me the UK Government would double my donation.

However, among the dust-covered treasures I’d totally forgotten, and spared the Ukrainians, was my 1975 Municipal Year Book (MYB) – a hefty, royal blue tome of 1,400-plus extremely closely printed pages, taking up over three inches of shelving.

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In pre-computer decades, when I joined INLOGOV, it was the proverbial local government bible – the 1975 MYB listing all 564 of the UK’s so-called principal local authorities plus, individually, their 26,467 councillors and further thousands of principal officers.

Several years later a thoughtful colleague, Ray Puffitt, bequeathed me his signed personal copy, possibly in exchange for my not pressing him to lecture to my undergraduate students.

Thoughtful because 1974/75 was, of course, the year of large-scale local government restructuring – or, in MYB-ese, ‘re-organization’. There were now far fewer councils and councillors, but these were the ‘new’ and therefore more relevant ones – which explains how I acquired my edition, though obviously not why it wasn’t binned decades ago.

Anyway, having discovered this 1975 stash of raw research data, I thought I’d share with you (and Birmingham Post readers) how much statistically women’s presence and visibility in our West Midlands local governments have changed in the past nearly half-century.

My earlier blog concluded by noting how Paulette Hamilton’s recent by-election victory for Labour in the Birmingham Erdington by-election had taken the proportion of women MPs over 35% for the first time. Moreover, that she and the six other women by-election winners since 2019 had – another first – made the Commons more gender-representative than our elected local governments, whose UK-wide proportion of women councillors has seemingly become stuck in the low 34%s.

Internationally, both percentages would get us, just, into the top quarter of the respective rankings. In educational lingo, though, it would be a “disappointing, could surely do better”.

If the Parliaments of Cuba, Mexico, New Zealand, Iceland and all Scandinavia can have more than 45% of elected women, why can’t we – or, more precisely, why doesn’t our huge Conservative Party majority comprise even a quarter? Similarly, if local government in countries as diverse as Bolivia, Tunisia, Iceland, Uganda, Namibia and Mexico can attract at least 45% of women elected members, why can we barely manage one in three?

At least, though, the picture has changed, or improved, hugely in the past half-century, which is what the rest of this blog is about – focusing on the metropolitan West Midlands.

I hadn’t moved to Birmingham in 1974/75, but I reckon that even without research I could probably have named the incumbent West Midlands’ women MPs – because, though few, they were all exceptional and established national reputations.

One, indeed, would have me as an Edgbaston constituent for the latter part of her elective parliamentary career: Jill (later Dame Jill) Knight, MP from 1966 to 1997.

The other three were all Labour: in West Bromwich another Dame-in-Waiting, Betty Boothroyd (1973-2000), latterly Speaker of the Commons. In Coventry West was Audrey Wise, and in Wolverhampton NE Renée Short. A formidable quartet.

Their successors are, necessarily, impressive too, and the reason I couldn’t immediately name them all is not just my ageing memory, but that there’s a full dozen of them. Eight Labour – including all three of Coventry’s – and four Conservatives out of West Midlands’ 28, or 43%.

Yardley’s Jess Phillips is, I’m guessing, probably best known, and she is one of just two of Labour’s eight who aren’t from minority ethnic backgrounds. Overall, another massive change from the mid-70s.

What about councillors?  Would the MYB’s council listings actually identify women members, and, if so, how?  Fortunately, they all risked the accusations of chauvinism and did – though in differing ways.

Birmingham, for example, gave first names – of all women members, while initialising the men. Then, as now, it was a Labour-dominated Council, 21 (17%) of whose 126 Members were women, including two Fredas, two Marys, and an exotic-sounding Carmen from Coleshill Road, B16. Oh yes, and a future Leader of the Council, Birmingham Lord Mayor, and wife of a Professor John Stewart.

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The other councils preferred marital status: almost always Mrs, with the very occasional Miss. Across the seven West Midlands councils Labour members outnumbered Conservatives by two to one, which was broadly reflected in women’s representation, with comfortably Tory Solihull managing just one woman out of 51 members.

However, the gender blend on Labour-run Coventry and Walsall Councils wasn’t that much better – four women on councils of well over 50, and one can only imagine how, on occasion, they must have been treated.

And no point whatever seeking empathy from senior women officers – because quite simply there weren’t any. Sorry, not strictly true. Of the 101 listed Principal Officers in the seven WM Councils, Miss H Clark, Wolverhampton’s Housing Manager, was the sole woman.

It’s here that the culture has changed most dramatically. Today, try counting the number of women in the senior managements of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils, and the very first name you’d encounter would be Birmingham City Council Chief Executive: Deborah Cadman OBE – heading a 13-strong team of service Directors, including four more women.

Remarkably, though, that 38% female senior management puts Birmingham at the foot of this particular league table, which is headed by Dudley and Solihull with 75% and 67% women senior managers respectively, followed by Walsall with 57%, headed by CE Dr Helen Paterson. In this sphere of local government at least, there has indeed been a metamorphosis.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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A version of this blog – ‘Equality progress – but room for improvement’ – was published by the Birmingham Post, March 24th, 2022 https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20220324/textview

Transitional safeguarding – putting children first

Cllr Ketan Sheth

Picture credit: https://drugpolicy.org/issues/protecting-youth

Most of us can remember as teenagers those exciting moments of independence, of achieving the landmarks of adulthood; perhaps learning to drive; our first relationship; our first job. These landmarks all signify moments of increasing maturity, of independence, but each of these landmarks remind us that there is no one moment of independence. We don’t flip a switch to become a grown-up – one day a child, one day an adult. Maturity is a gradual process, a high wire that we walk where most of us benefit from a safety net of parents, family, friends. 

For our most vulnerable children and young people too, there isn’t a switch and sadly too often they don’t have the safety net they need. There is now much more emphasis on the transitional period so that services extend from aged 16 to around 25. There should not be abrupt changes to a service just because someone reaches the age of 18, with its attendant risk of falling between the gap where services don’t always join up!

In recent years, safeguarding children and adults has become increasingly complex, with risks such as sexual exploitation, gang and group offending and violent crime challenging the children’s and adults’ safeguarding workforce to identify opportunities for innovation. The notion of transitional safeguarding is an emerging one, not currently widely applied in policy or practice. Its implementation requires changes in policy and practice and across systems involving all agencies. 

However, some local authority areas, like Brent, are already innovating and creating opportunities for more flexible and bespoke support, and providing valuable experiences for young people at a key point in their lives. This makes sense in most circumstances, but keeping vulnerable young people safe as they transition from adolescence to adulthood challenges us all to remember that becoming an adult is a process of transition, of many moments. 

Transitional safeguarding is an emerging area of practice where we challenge ourselves in public service to make sure we keep that safety net in place; that we help keep safe and promote the well-being of our young people when they need it most, regardless of the artificial barriers of age, and including during those important times of transition to adulthood. 

Supporting young people’s safety and well-being during the transition to adulthood is not only morally and ethically important, but it is also important for the future health of society and future generations. Young people may experience a range of risks and harms which may require a distinct multi-agency safeguarding response, and safeguarding support should not end simply because a young person reaches the age of 18. Investing in support to address harm and its impacts at this life stage can help to reduce for the need for specialist and statutory intervention and criminal justice involvement later on in life.

In Brent, my scrutiny committee recognises the importance of taking this holistic, broad view for our Brent young people. We believe we are well placed to be at the vanguard of these developments, with promising pilot work, in collaboration with partner organisations, already completed to change and enhance services; and my scrutiny committee are recommending that Brent develops a council-wide approach to transitional safeguarding by working with those young people who need us most.

And most importantly, I think that everybody has a valuable contribution to make to the transitional safeguarding agenda to help improve our practice for the better outcomes of all our most vulnerable young people; and indeed, the service is there when they need to use it.

Cllr Ketan Sheth is Brent Council’s Chair of Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee 

Women in local and national governance: the balance (at least in the UK) has shifted

Chris Game

One thing I’d expect most of this blog’s readers broadly to agree on is that UK ‘local’ government should really be given what grammarians call doubt quotes. It ceased long ago to be meaningfully local, decades before the next generation of county-based levelling-up deals.

So, I thought, where better to start this International Women’s Day (IWD) overview of women’s elected presence in local and central governance than at the other extreme: Barbuda, the alphabetically secondary part of Antigua and Barbuda, the Caribbean country comprising these two Leeward Islands plus several enticingly named even smaller ones: Great Bird, Prickly Pear, etc.

Constitutionally almost just like us, A & B is a unitary, parliamentary, representative democratic monarchy: a two-House Parliament, with only the lower House directly elected, but Labour faring rather better than they have done here lately. Here’s the thing, though. The two main islands are wildly unbalanced – Antigua with over 97% of the nearly 100,000 population, Barbuda barely 2%.  Yet Barbuda is the one, for 45 years now, with the local democratic smarts: its directly elected Barbuda Council.

The island of Antigua is run by – yes, you guessed – ‘The Ministry’; in this case MESYGA, the Ministry of Education, Sports, Youth and Gender Affairs. Barbuda has not only its elected 11-member Council, but, as you’ll see from its Barbudaful website, a majority of women members and a woman Chair.

Such councils anywhere are rare, which is why – I could sense you wondering – Barbuda’s is deservedly up front on IWD, or in UoB’s case the start of International Women’s Month.  And the remainder of this blog will draw on some of the other amassment of data in surely THE most fitting sourcebook for the day.  Entitled, with needless modesty, a ‘Working Paper’, it’s UN Women’s  Working Women’s Representation in Local Government: A Global Analysis, authored chiefly by Ionica Berevoescu and Julie Ballington, published December 2021 – and it’s a treasure trove.

The overview of new local-level data that ideally should constitute the core of this blog is inevitably pretty summary, but needs to be made even more so by at least a brief reference to the subject’s overall political context and importance. Women’s rights to equal political participation at all levels of government have for the past quarter-century been variously asserted, affirmed, and endorsed in proclamations of international goals, most importantly in the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – Target 5.5 being to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life” (emphasis added).

It’s that new indicator – extended to women’s representation in the world’s local governments, or at least 133 of them in early 2020 – that this blog was going to be primarily about.  It got kind of overtaken, though, by the even bigger question: Are women worldwide, as has long been the case in Britain, better represented in local than in national governments?

Given the nature of local governments’ usually major service responsibilities and expenditures, my personal feeling was that it would be rather regrettable if they weren’t – the more so if I was wrong on the UK figures, and, instead of simply getting closer by the year, they could be shown statistically finally to have crossed over.

SPOILER ALERT!  However, since, and probably even before, last Thursday’s Birmingham Erdington parliamentary by-election – in which Labour’s Paulette Hamilton became the seventh woman victor in this Parliament’s eight by-elections and the fifth to replace a male predecessor, bringing the total of women MPs to a record, and statistically significant, 225 – I WAS wrong.

p1

Here’s how. Thanks to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s annual tabulations, we’ve been able to track that part of the international picture for decades.  In the 1990s the top women-friendly countries were notably Euro-dominated, though with no help from us.  In !997, for instance, the only five Lower Houses internationally to have more than 30% women memberships were Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. New Zealand, the Seychelles, Argentina and Mozambique were trying, but the UK was down in an embarrassing 50th place and unable to manage even double figures. Ahead, admittedly, of France and Greece, but that was about it.

Ten years on, thanks considerably to the arrival of variously legislated or voluntary gender quotas, the overall picture had improved, and Rwanda had crashed the 50% barrier, with 45 (56%) women in its 80-seat Chamber of Deputies. Cuba and Argentina were over 40% … and the UK, though still just ahead of France, was down to 60th, struggling now to reach 20%.

Today – or, more precisely, in last month’s IPU Parline rankings – the global picture has become more variegated still. The top 15, with around 45% or more women, currently comprise five countries from each of Europe (Iceland, Andorra, Sweden, Finland, Norway) and Latin America (Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina), two African (Rwanda, of course, and South Africa) and one each from Asia (United Arab Republic), Australasia (New Zealand), and the Caribbean (Grenada).

And the UK?  Up to a hardly glorious 45th alongside Dominica – with just over the one in three, which at least is better than the House of Lords’ 28.6%.

So … the big question was: Is our local government today – still, as always hitherto – more gender representative than our national elected legislature?

As you may sense, I wasn’t bringing absolute researcher detachment to this exercise. It was posed in the hope/expectation that it would prove to be what Latin scholars call a ‘nonne’ or affirmative question, expecting the answer ‘Yes.’  Of course there’d be a higher proportion of women councillors than women MPs – wouldn’t there?

I knew the 2019 General Election stats: 220 women MPs, including, obviously for the first time, majorities of both Labour and Lib Dem Members. Congrats, obviously, to them, but, with the Conservatives’ massive majority comprising under a quarter of women, local government would still have at least a narrow percentage lead – wouldn’t it?

But then began, as noted above, the striking trend of victorious women by-election candidates replacing former male MPs, and when Paulette Hamilton did her thing last Thursday, I was getting seriously nervous.  225/650 is 34.6%; rounded up becomes 35% – an all-time record, which is obviously a ‘good thing’, but worryingly close to what I reckoned the local government figure to be.

To cut a potentially tedious story short: if, as we relatively rarely do, we compare the whole of UK local government – as opposed to that of England, or sometimes England and Wales – it currently makes the decisive difference.  For the first time, authoritative, genuinely compiled and comparable statistics showed there to be proportionately more women MPs than women councillors.

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I shall now retire gracefully from this particular field of research and address something perhaps more rewarding – like whether being a plurinational, rather than merely multinational, state somehow boosts women’s electoral prospects.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Defining ‘Levelling Up’ – best effort yet?

Chris Game

PoliticsHome, the online Parliamentary news source, recently commissioned a Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll into the public’s awareness and understanding of the Government’s ‘flagship’ slogan – sorry, policy – of ‘Levelling Up’.

It wasn’t great – the awareness and understanding bit, I mean, not the poll. “Somewhat” and “moderately aware” responses formed the clear majority, with a further third of respondents shamelessly admitting “no understanding at all”.   

Which left 14% reckoning they were “well aware” – confident perhaps that they’d not be pressed for details. That’s one in seven potential voters claiming familiarity with the Government’s two-year-old core domestic policy.  Hardly impressive, but I’m sorry – I didn’t believe this particular sub-sample of the Great British Public, even when I first read it.

That is, before the week in which we learned that none of the HS2 eastern leg, the planned Northern Powerhouse Rail, and the Government’s cap on social care costs were, as widely supposed, integral to Levelling Up

Not the least of my reasons for doubting that 14% “well aware” figure was that I’d question whether that many Conservative MPs (50+) would seriously have claimed such familiarity. Even returning from October’s annual party conference, they were openly pleading for fewer “buzzwords” and some “meat on the bones” to offer their increasingly disaffected constituents.

Hardly surprisingly, considering all they’d got from the proverbial horse’s mouth – Levelling Up Minister Neil O’Brien at a Policy Exchange fringe event – was that it’s a “four-fold concept”, involving empowering local leaders and communities, growing the private sector in areas with lower living standards, improving public services, and heightening civic pride. Just what PoliticsHome’s 14% had in mind, no doubt!

But then O’Brien got carried away, almost parroting Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “It’s big – You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to …” 

Adams, of course, was describing space. Compare O’Brien on Levelling Up: It’s “a huge expensive thing … and will help all people who’ve long felt neglected”.  And there’ll be even more “in the Levelling Up white paper we’ll be publishing … (pause for drumroll) … shortly”.

Or not so shortly, as we learned this past weekend from the DLUHC’s otherwise largely silent ‘big hitter’, Michael Gove – but quite possibly featuring “swathes of rural England [electing] powerful American-style governors”. Odd that O’Brien didn’t mention them!

Either way, it’s frustrating for all concerned, particularly with Ministers having been handing out – and some of their constituencies receiving – tranches of supposedly Levelling Up-type funding for over two years now. So many tranches, indeed, that it’s genuinely hard to keep up.

And that’s not the purpose of this blog, but even a highlights list would include:

* £3.6 billion Towns Fundlaunched as effectively the new PM’s first policy initiative in July 2019, this one would “unleash the full economic potential of [eventually 101] English towns … as part of the Government’s plan to level up our regions”. 

An initial 1,082 towns were narrowed down to the “most needy” 50%, then grouped regionally by “officials” into high, medium and low priority.  All 40 ‘highs’ were selected for funding of up to £25m, with ministers choosing the remainder “based on the information provided and their own judgement”.

Which enabled Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, to judge his junior ministerial colleague Jake Berry’s 270th most deprived constituency as still pretty ‘needy’, in apparent exchange for Berry making a similar evaluation of Jenrick’s Newark.

* UK £220 million Community Renewal Fund awards to help 100 particularly needy places/communities across the UK prepare for next year’s launch of the (very much bigger – est. £1.5 billion) UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU structural and investment funding.                          

Bids were ranked on five ‘metrics’ – productivity, skills, unemployment rate, population density, and household income – with final funding decisions made by the Secretary of State for the (now) Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department, “after considering any comments from ministerial colleagues”. No actual mention back then of Levelling Up, and disgruntled moans this time from MPs and councils across the spectrum – but, with over £15m to Moseley Road Baths, it wasn’t all bad.

* £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund – this one is definitely about Levelling Up, bringing together that department, the Treasury, and Transport to invest in “high-value local infrastructure”. Focus is on “places where it can make the biggest difference to everyday life, including ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and coastal communities”. 

Come the results, though, we were back in Towns Fund territory – Sajid Javid’s Bromsgrove constituency and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ Central Bedfordshire being levelled up still further from their positions among the least deprived fifth of authorities nationwide.

As with most of these exercises, the assessment process and criteria are explicit, but without providing the key information successful or, even more, unsuccessful bidders really want.  There are “pass/fail gateway criteria”, assessment criteria – here covering “strategic fit, deliverability, value for money, and characteristics of place” – giving GB bids a potential score of 100.  Following which, Ministers are increasingly involved, together with and guided by officials (of course), but in an essentially indeterminable way.

MPs, naturally, react at least in the first instance to whether ‘their’ patch has ‘won’ or ‘lost’ in these funding contests.  Not so the Commons Public Accounts Committee – Labour-chaired, but Conservative-dominated – who, pretty well from the outset with the Towns Fund, have criticised severely the blatant Ministerial involvement in the “not impartial” selection process.

Civil servants had ranked towns into three categories by local need and growth potential, then chosen all 40 ‘High Priority’ ones. Whereupon Ministers then selected a further 60, heavily represented by Conservative MPs, from the Medium and Low priority categories. Twelve Low Priority areas won out over Medium Priority towns, including Greater Manchester’s Cheadle, ranked 535th out of 541, but with a vulnerable 2,336 Conservative majority.

“Vague and based on sweeping assumptions” was the Committee’s verdict on Ministers’ selections, which risked jeopardising the civil service’s reputation for integrity and impartiality.

With something at least as sophisticated and certainly more objective evidently required, up stepped WPI (Westminster Policy Institute) with its Levelling Up Index. It attempts almost exactly what the Government claims it wants: a comprehensive socio-economic statistically based identification of those areas (though by parliamentary constituency, rather than local authority) most in need of levelling up.

WPI’s Index assigns all English and Welsh constituencies ‘Levelling Up’ rankings – from the most needy, Blackpool South (1), to the least, South Cambridgeshire (573) – then divides them into three categories: Priorities, Borderliners, Achievers.

Achievers, mainly in the South and upwardly mobile suburbs of major urban centres, perform better than Borderliners, who constitute the national average and are judged to require support in certain areas. Levelling Up Priorities, though, should be places, disproportionately in the North, Midlands, and Wales, that have historically suffered through industrial decline, and often additionally through Government spending policies.

Six indicators combine to determine a Levelling Up score: spending power; financial dependency, based on Job Seekers’ Allowance and Universal Credit claims; crime rates; deprivation scores; health measures; and empty commercial properties.

Better still, there’s an excellent interactive WPI Index Map, the enlarged West Midlands section of which shows clearly the prioritisation the six indicators suggest our region’s constituencies should be accorded in any objectively conducted Levelling Up exercise.

The map’s core message barely needs commentary, but some individual Levelling Up scores are useful. The whole metropolitan West Midlands is a Priority, with the exceptions of Borderliners Edgbaston (sounds familiar – 208) and Stourbridge (210), and Achievers Sutton Coldfield (452) and Solihull (524).

Other Birmingham scores range from Erdington, Ladywood, and Hodge Hill (9, 10 15), through Perry Barr, Hall Green, Yardley, and Northfield (43, 55, 60, 62), to Selly Oak (156).

Viewed pictorially, we look pretty determined to get our deserved recognition. To me, anyway, we resemble a rather ferocious, albeit three-legged, tail-docked Cockapoo – about to attack those South Staffs Achievers, before making mincemeat of Boris’s Peppa Pig.

 

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.