Eastern Arc’s response to the Levelling Up White Paper

07 February 2022

Eastern Arc (EARC) is a research consortium comprising the universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent. It aims to deliver real and tangible change through a close collaboration across the East and South East of England.

As regional, research-intensive universities with a strong civic focus, we welcome the Government’s commitment to addressing the challenge of levelling up the social and economic disparities that exist across the UK. 

Its Levelling Up White Paper, published on 2 February, offers a thoughtful analysis of the current situation and the chronic issues that have led us here, and sets out an ambitious framework of measures to address them. 

A focus on missions and devolution of decision-making

We believe that its mission-centred approach will help focus efforts on key areas of need. Within our region, this need can clearly be seen in many of our communities, particularly in our coastal towns, where educational attainment, pay, and life expectancy are lower than the average for England.

More specifically, according to a recent analysis undertaken by EARC and due to be published imminently, 77% of districts within our area have a higher than average proportion of low pay sector employment and around a third of districts have higher than average claimant numbers, as well as lower life expectancy for both males and females.

We particularly welcome the Government’s aim to devolve decision-making and empower communities, and we look forward to working with councils, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and other stakeholders to tackle the challenges we face within our economy and society. 

Our region has huge potential to do so. It has the highest capacity for renewable energy in the UK and is a hub for global trade and logistics. Our agricultural industry provides over a third of England’s farming income, and our coast is home to a strong cultural and creative sector. Through harnessing and building on these and other regional strengths, we can work to improve the economic prospects of our communities and the wellbeing of our citizens. 

Moreover, the investment in the Thames Freeport and Freeport East offers a huge opportunity for our region, and we intend to play a significant role through our knowledge exchange capability in ensuring the success of these crucial economic zones.

The need for long-term thinking and political consensus

However, we believe that there are two key issues that the Government needs to address to ensure that the delivery of its ambition is effective and is translated into improvements in the lives of individuals and communities.  

For levelling up to work, it needs to be sustainable in the long-term and based upon consensus. The Paper itself notes that ‘spatial policy in the UK has…been characterised by endemic policy churn’ and that ‘success is measured in decades not years.’

It also recognises that, in successful examples of regional development, ‘cross-party consensus was critical [and] successful programmes require collaboration with stakeholders, residents and neighbouring areas, as well as central government.’

The political response to the publication of the White Paper has demonstrated that no such consensus was secured in preparing this framework. Neither do we believe that the short to medium-term goals outlined in the Paper will be enough to embed real, sustainable structural change. We would have liked to have seen a cross-party, cross-sectoral collaboration in developing this policy; it is too important to do otherwise, and makes it prone to changes of direction ‘across political cycles.’ 

Regional difference and R&D investment

More specifically, we have concerns about how regional disparities have been identified. As the White Paper points out, ‘patterns of economic and social performance across different parts of the UK are rich, complex and highly granular,’ and ‘differences within UK regions or cities are larger than differences between regions.’

Within regions of prosperity, there are areas that need additional investment. Conversely, within regions of relative under-investment there are areas (or institutions) that do not need any further funding and are as prosperous as the most affluent elsewhere.

This is true for economic and social investment, and it is equally true when it comes to R&D funding. The White Paper sets out the Government’s target to increase R&D spend outside the ‘Greater South East’ by 40% by 2030. Although not defined, we take the Greater South East to mean the East and South East of England. This is too broad a region to be meaningful.

Current R&D expenditure is, in global figures, highest in London, the South East and East of England, but it is heavily distorted by the location of the six ‘Golden Triangle’ universities within these regions, which are all within the top ten richest universities in the UK. 

The Eastern Arc universities lie within the shadow of the Golden Triangle, as do many of the former 1994 Group universities. In the white paper, as in the R&D Roadmap, there is no recognition of the difference of scale between the two. There is a need – as the White Paper implies – to analyse and understand regional need and opportunity at a granular level and be careful in differentiating such significant variations within regions. 

In summary

We welcome the Levelling Up White Paper, and believe that it offers a strong basis on which to build change. Universities such as ours are central to this change: as anchor institutions within our region we play a disproportionately large role in enabling engagement and improving outcomes for every member of society. As such, we will work closely with national and regional policymakers to help implement the policy and thereby rebuild the economic and social wellbeing of our communities.

However, in return we call on the Government to work across party lines, to reach out to and fully engage with regional stakeholders and communities, and to understand the specific needs and strengths at a sub-regional level. By doing so we hope to ensure its sustainability and break the cycle of ‘stop-start’ policy and ‘patchwork’ investment that, as the White Paper succinctly puts it, ‘first builds hope, then destroys it.’

“Great Yarmouth seafront” by John D Fielding is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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