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Levelling up with data.

The 2019 Conservative Manifesto mentioned levelling up 11 times. It was variously defined as making sure that,

  • "everyone can get a fair share of future prosperity"
  • "the UK’s cities and regions are better connected"
  • "the skills of the entire nation enable people to fulfil their potential"
  • "we use science and research to unite our country giving people opportunity and hope"
  • "we create up to ten freeports, benefiting some of our most deprived communities"

Not much to disagree with there, except maybe the last one.

Two years later, levelling up was the major topic of both the 2021 Labour Party Conference in Brighton and the 2021 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Think tanks, lobbying organisations, policy groups, polling companies, local governments, elected mayors, and even different ministries within the UK government have piled in with their own definitions of levelling up and their own ideas for achieving them.

Levelling up is a big thing.

So levelling up is a big thing, probably an even bigger thing than the Northern Powerhouse was, if you remember that. But it’s not a big thing with an agreed or consistent definition.

This is fine. Our society cherishes complexity and nuance over simplicity and clarity. With different people and organisations having different biases and interests, it is no surprise that definitions of levelling up differ.

Since we cannot expect a simple and clear definition of levelling up, our challenge is to try and make the many different definitions of levelling up visible. Only then will we be able to see whose interests align, measure if progress is being made, and check if the goalposts against which progress is being measured are being moved.

Defining levelling up.

No-one is doing a better job of collecting and sharing the many definitions of levelling up than Centre for Cities. On their City Talks podcast they have interviewed think tanks, academics in the UK, academics in Germany, elected mayors, and even themselves on what levelling up might mean. They’ve even shared some opinions on how we might do levelling up to some of those definitions.

Each interview on their podcast is just the first step to more detail. Their interview with Will Tanner of the centre-right think-tank UK Onward leads us to their work on levelling up. Their interview with Carys Roberts of centre-left think-tank IPPR leads us to their work on levelling up health for prosperity.

For those who care most about health, you can read "The government’s levelling up agenda" by The Health Foundation.

Maybe you care most about wellbeing? Measuring Wellbeing Inequality in Britain by the What Works Wellbeing is there for you.

Measuring levelling up.

Defining levelling up in a way that can be measured is harder than debating what levelling up might mean. It is also riskier since a measurable definition is much harder to change in the future, and much easier to examine and criticise in the present.

The UK government itself has made a good first effort of defining levelling up with data. In Levelling Up Fund: Prioritisation of places methodology note a weighted blend of eight separate measures covering productivity, unemployment, skills, accessibility, and empty properties is assembled into a single score and a ranking of all UK local authorities. Because the need for levelling up is defined with respect to data it is clear and it can be tracked.

Challenges to this definition, now that it is clear, are much easier to make. Many people have questioned the government’s methodology and one such criticism is currently being put to the government in court. I hope that this is not an incentive to continue avoiding definition with data. We need more not less of that.

More definition with data

There is quite a lot of work to build on in this area. The Resolution Foundation in how Britain’s North-South divide is changing and Professor Philip McCann in The UK Regional–National Economic Problem propose measures of levelling up from an economic perspective. In health, wellbeing, education, and many more areas we will link to work as we discover it.

I'll be explaining why I don't think that "there is more inequality within places than between them" is right. And we will be defining what we think levelling up should be. We will define the data and algorithms that we think we should use to measure its success.

For me the answer is simple, levelling up should mean lowering the dispersion of GDP across the UK’s functional economic areas. This is very similar to the EU’s mechanism for assigning regional development funding money. But I know that for others, GDP is not something that they feel we should target and using a target that is similar to the EU’s is politically awkward.

So whether it's wellbeing, health, education, or something else, we want to help people define what they think levelling up should mean, and how we should measure it, with data.

Learn more on our live hub page for this project which updates frequently.