Tony Travers: Skill improvement is key to leveling, not random cash injections

Performance indicators including life expectancy and reduced unemployment need to be developed to show whether the government’s flagship policy is succeeding, writes the director of LSE London.

The government has, at most, only two and a half years to “bring” the UK up to standard. We are now approaching the mid-term of the current government and the results of the leveling will surely have to be visible before the end of spring 2024 (or maybe 2023).

Tony Travers, Director of LSE London

of course, that doesn’t make sense !! It took more than 50 years for the political challenges grouped together in the form of a need to make sweeping improvements to places and people “left behind” to integrate. It would take at least two decades to begin to mitigate the problems caused by industrial change.

Basically, these challenges stem from (a) the political responses of successive governments to the rapid deindustrialization of Great Britain from the 1950s onwards, (b) an education system that has often entangled the social hierarchy (not the same as class) with the esteem given to different types of learning and (c) the fact that London and the wider South East have accidentally become one of the world’s largest and most sought-after agglomerations for entrepreneurship, skills and investment.

An economic revolution

So far, government policy has involved pots of money for cities, town centers and “leveling”. Higher education and vocational training have seen a modest reversal of the budget cuts they suffered from 2010, with some sensible new initiatives. The combined authorities and mayors have become lobbyists for resources and, where they work best, have begun to shape a potential economic future for their regions.

What is needed is a massive upgrade of people, especially in parts of the country where the economy has changed forever

Covid and Brexit have added new challenges for policymakers. The former has accelerated pre-existing trends towards different patterns of work and retailing, while the latter will inevitably lead to changes in the structure of the economy. The structure of international trade will change, with different impacts from place to place.

The UK is going through another economic revolution that will not be stopped by protectionism, attempts to move large institutions across the country or by random injections of money into industry. What is needed is a massive skills upgrade, especially in parts of the country where the economy has changed forever. Steps to raise the status of less advantaged parts of post-school education, improve local transport in urban areas and ensure the availability of ‘seed’ funding across the UK would go a long way. to unleash what Harold Wilson has immortalized as the “white heat” of the “scientific revolution”.

The danger of “the archeology of regeneration”

In all fairness, the government has started to act on these three strategic objectives. However, until now, more importance has been given to the reconstruction of city centers and to classic one-off projects of the “urban program” type. Civic pride is powerful, and city centers should be great places to visit. But unless the local economy reverts to productive life, there is a risk that the various top-down funding streams will simply create more “archeology of regeneration”: government programs from the 2020s onwards than generations. futures will observe alongside those of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Cut deprived Londoners from the results of [levelling up] would risk further impoverishing some of the most disadvantaged places in the country

One of the curiosities of the recent budget and expenditure review has been the emergence of two new nations in the UK. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now sit alongside “outside London” and “London” as part of the country. This separation of England into two sub-nations was undoubtedly to underline the extent to which contemporary politics intended to profit “outside London”. But in terms of upgrading, cutting disadvantaged Londoners (and those in the South East) off the results of this policy would risk further impoverishing some of the country’s most disadvantaged places.

For the upgrade to work, it will require performance metrics. Life expectancy would be good, as would the reduction in unemployment. Unless such measures are developed, we will not know whether progress is being made.

Tony Travers, Director, LSE London

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