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More ambition please

Delivery. That is surely the word that the Prime Minister would most like us to associate with her premiership, having uttered ‘we will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver’ at the moment of her victory. Here’s the thing: in the end, most delivery is local.

Every new government is keen to find ways of making the Whitehall system more responsive, more outcomes-focused, and better at delivery. It’s much more easily said than done: after all, every successive government takes on the task… and when they leave office, they also leave behind them familiar complaints – and a familiar challenge for the next incumbent.

Boris Johnson described the Whitehall system’s response to Covid as like a ‘bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won't move’. Before that, David Cameron said that the ‘rules and regulations … make life impossible’. Before that, Tony Blair talked about the ‘scars’ on his back – claw marks from his attempts to reform public services.

We’re keen to understand why this keeps happening. In our new research programme, Reimagining Whitehall, we offer one place to start: if she wants a Whitehall machine focused on delivery, Liz Truss would do well to sustain – even to double down – on the levelling up agenda that was so important to her predecessor.

Even in our hyper-centralised system, delivery is localised. Levelling up is not only about delivering opportunity to new parts of the country and driving growth, but also reviving the local structures, pride, and leadership that could help make routine government delivery and excellence a reality.

To achieve this, we have a simple message (though perhaps one that those in central government won’t like). The centre must give up some of its power; must share it with local government and communities themselves.

Doing so will allow for a focused, strategic centre – one that isn’t bogged down in the impossible task of micromanaging delivery in both Sevenoaks and Scarborough.

At the same time this would revolutionise the way that local leaders and communities are able to effect transformation – and really ‘deliver’ on levelling up – within left behind and deprived communities.

In a new report, we explore the possibilities for genuine levelling up in East Birmingham and North Solihull. Birmingham City Council, Solihull MBC, and the West Midlands Combined Authority are doing everything they can to work together, beyond party differences, to plan a different future for places with a stark history of underinvestment.

Central government’s new take on levelling up is of course low-regulation, low-tax ‘investment zones’. This is a model that could help in places like East Birmingham. But we think there is room for more ambition.

The funding model should be radically simplified, consolidated, and devolved for administration by local government.

People working in local government will know that the present system revolves around a huge number of small, centrally-held, competitive pots. We scrutinised the 13 pots which had been explicitly associated with levelling up by the government, and found a plethora of timescales, application processes, and reporting requirements. 9 in 10 are managed directly by central government, and two thirds have to be spent down in three years or less (minus all the time spent applying for them of course).

This is why we also think that broader powers and accountabilities should be devolved too. Connecting levelling up investment with relevant public services, building collaborations across social infrastructure, and building legitimacy by working closely with communities will all happen at local scales.

This is why the power-hoarding tendencies of the Whitehall system must be tackled – for Whitehall’s own sake, and for the sake of the ongoing mission to level up our country.

Dr Simon Kaye is Director of Policy at the think tank Reform.

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