Who is responsible for levelling up?

January 5, 2021

The question of whether or not the Government is making good on its promise to level up poorer parts of the country is one of the most important and contentious subjects in regional economic development circles. But is it really down to the Government to fix regional inequalities or does this longstanding issue require a more holistic approach? Richard Dawson asks Made Tech chief executive Rory MacDonald the question of who is responsible for levelling up?

Levelling up does not belong to any individual, business or government – it is something all of us must work together to achieve.

Much has been made of it being the Boris Johnson levelling up agenda, but in reality, the principle of tackling inequalities between the English regions is one that the UK has been grappling with for some time.

The recently announced £4 billion Levelling Up Fund is the latest contribution from the Government, but in and of itself, this will not deliver the equanimity we seek.

To see a genuine reduction in the prosperity gap between London and the South East and regions like the North East, we need a holistic approach whereby individuals, businesses and governments each play their part.

For individuals, it’s about re-evaluating where they want to live and work. For businesses, it’s about taking another look at the world beyond the M25. For the Government, it’s about working to make the regions more attractive to both of the above.

One business looking at what it can do to support levelling up is Made Tech – the public sector technology delivery provider for Government departments that include HM Revenue & Customs, the Department for Education, Ministry of Justice and the Government Digital Service.

The London-based company’s chief executive Rory MacDonald is a big supporter of levelling up and has recently opened three new locations in Manchester, Bristol and Swansea, with plans for a Newcastle office in the pipeline.

He says: “Fundamentally, I believe there’s too much wealth concentrated in the South and we need to do more to encourage businesses away from London.

“That’s part of the reason we embarked on a regionalisation strategy around 12 months ago.

“We were servicing the public sector, but mostly servicing it by travelling a lot so, the thinking was, if we have closer proximity to our customers, we can be a more effective partner.

“But it was also about regional job creation and building the skills our business needs in the regions.

“Newcastle is going to be a really important area for us moving forward because the North East is such a hub for the public sector. There are a number of organisations in the region we’re looking to work with.”

On the whole, Rory supports the emphasis behind the new Levelling Up Fund, but for him, the real change has to come from business.

“Any investment into levelling up is a positive thing,” he explains. “The onus has to be on business though.

“I think the Government is there to stimulate it, to encourage levelling up to happen, but the onus has got to be on businesses to actually bite the bullet and be based outside of London and the South East.”

One thing that might encourage businesses to bite that bullet is having a strong regional talent pool to draw from. This can be achieved by making the regions more attractive for people to be based in.

COVID-19 might have actually helped matters in this respect.

“There’s a lot of people living in London who are questioning why they are living in London,” Rory explains.

A combination of sky-high house prices, long commutes and overcrowding have long cast a shadow over life in the capital.

But in the context of coronavirus, where working from home has become the norm, many people are wondering if it’s still necessary to tolerate these downsides or whether a change of scenery could be in order.

This is where regions like the North East could have a real opportunity.

Lower living costs and ease of access to coast and countryside are selling points we Northerners have been waxing lyrical about since the dawn of time.

But the pandemic has given these benefits fresh currency with the kind of people we need to attract here moving forward.

“COVID-19 could really help drive that agenda forward more quickly than many people anticipated,” adds Rory.

Getting the right skills into the regions is a key component of levelling up because businesses go where the skills are.

That’s why Rory believes investing in skills would be the best way to make use of the Levelling Up Fund.

He says: “Things like infrastructure investment are positive because they help reduce bottlenecks to collaboration and connectivity. But it’s the development of people and skills that is most important.

“It’s those skills that will drive entrepreneurialism and start new businesses and create opportunities.

“I haven’t seen enough about that in my view, in terms of what’s going to be done to develop the right skills moving forward.”

The Levelling Up Fund is essentially an attempt the boost prosperity in parts of the country that have been short of it.

But what’s clear is that its success depends on far more than a £4 billion commitment from the Government.

It depends on individuals and businesses biting the bullet and relocating to the regions, following the example of companies like Made Tech.

Only with this holistic approach will the UK be able to push away from the unwanted title of being the most regionally unequal country in the developed world.

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