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Making a positive difference to people’s life chances and quality of life
The success of the UK government’s levelling up policy should be measured in terms of the beneficial outcomes for communities.
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Levelling up is about equality not geography

The UK is committed to spending billions on regeneration and infrastructure projects to ‘level up’ the regions. But how do you decide where investment should be prioritised and what kind of interventions will have the most beneficial impact? The answer, says Lisa Littlefair, is by consulting communities and designing projects around their individual needs.

By a number of measures the UK is one of the most geographically unequal nations in the developed world.

London has been significantly more prosperous than the rest of the country for well over a century while infrastructure spending per head in the capital has historically been higher than other areas.

Against this backdrop, the aim of the UK government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is to renew and revitalise ‘left behind’ areas – but this is not simply about healing the North/South divide.

There are pockets of deprivation in every part of the four nations that comprise the UK. The inequalities within regions, within cities even, can be larger than the inequalities between regions.

This is why we should think of levelling up in terms of equality rather than geography.

We need to put away the atlas. It is only by looking through a ‘social’ lens that we can identify, first, which communities are most in need and, second, how we can invest in these places to make a positive difference to people’s life chances and quality of life.

Consultation is key to inclusion

Current government regeneration schemes, the largest of which are the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund and the £3.6bn Towns Fund, emphasise the importance of “delivering in partnership with local areas” and “giving communities a stronger voice”.

It’s an approach we are already taking. Our teams go into the heart of communities to carry out groundwork research, talking and listening to the residents to develop an understanding of the issues they face. We then work closely with stakeholders and decision-makers, across public and private sectors, to design projects that will address local needs and aspirations.

The underlying causes of inequality are complex and different for each community. Decision-making processes that are well informed by the community lay a good foundation for developing policies and projects that address entrenched, localised disadvantage and effect real change.

Integration of consultation and engagement into project design and development will help to deliver inclusive infrastructure and services that cater for the broadest possible cross-section of the population.

There are many interpretations as to what levelling up actually means – a White Paper to be published later in the year will hopefully provide clarity. But we already know that tackling inequality is a multifaceted agenda. Key to it is considering how infrastructure can serve other functions and produce multiple social outcomes, increasing the resilience and wellbeing of communities, and providing the services, the facilities and the environment their inhabitants need to flourish.

Through consultation and engagement at every stage of the project lifecycle, coupled with people-centred planning and design, we can pinpoint where the inequalities are and invest in tailored responses that promote inclusive growth. If this is not levelling up, what is?

Leaving a lasting social legacy

The amount of public money committed by the UK government is impressive but, of course, it’s not how much you spend, but how you spend it. The success of levelling up should be measured in terms of the positive outcomes for communities, not the amount of money spent.

The increased importance now attached by ministers to public consultation is to be welcomed as a step in the right direction. Yet the fact remains that most decisions on where to direct investment will still be made centrally.

For levelling up to be effective, communities must be empowered to shape and influence development in their area. Openness and engagement will support inclusive problem solving and decision-making, averting policy and investment decisions that only help the few, not the many.

This will create the opportunities for the infrastructure sector to design and deliver projects that can leave a lasting social legacy and make a significant contribution to driving inclusive growth, and in places that really need it.

Lisa Littlefair

Leeds City account lead, Mott MacDonald

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