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The government’s long-awaited announcement of its Levelling Up White Paper has at last provided the country with more clarity on just what “levelling up” is, why it’s important, how the government intends to address it and what exactly the markers of success will be in assessing the effectiveness of this nationwide policy.
Perhaps there is a temptation to be downbeat when considering levelling up. There is no doubt it’s a big challenge, possibly greater still when considered alongside the effects and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What examples can we point to from history where such a large change has been embarked upon? There are references to Renaissance Florence within the white paper and the approach taken by the Medici rulers toward investment, culture, banking and civic pride. A more recent comparison is with another European neighbour – levelling up is a challenge that has been seen and compared to the communities and divides in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the investment required to aid reunification.
The UK needs to plot its own path and not look to history, but rather embrace the technologies of the future and how they might facilitate the levelling-up process.
There was welcome news in the white paper reaffirming a commitment to Project Gigabit, investing in skills training, aiming to shift research funding beyond London and the South East, enhancing support for innovation with three new innovation accelerators, adding regional investment via the British Business Bank and improving the use of data and metrics to track success.
Tracking success is paramount. There must be an improved understanding of local business, technological and societal settings, and regional strengths or nuances. This helps target support, scale up what is working, and improve collaboration.
However, it will need serious effort beyond the time in office of a single prime minister and stretching beyond the sight of most governments’ policy plans in a parliament. This means it needs cross-party consensus to stand a chance of being taken seriously, staying relevant and, perhaps most importantly, being funded to deliver the change the country requires.
Regardless of politics, underpinning every aspect of levelling up is, and must be, technology.
TechUK’s Local Digital Capital Index (LDC Index) outlined the building blocks that allow strong local tech ecosystems to thrive, including digital infrastructure, digital adoption, digital skills, research and innovation, finance and investment and trade support, as well as collaboration and data ecosystems. The Levelling Up White Paper refers to “six capitals” that align with TechUK’s LDC Index, but also our calls to ensure technology is at the heart of our economy and the opportunities available to everyone in the UK.
Let’s take one region of the UK as an example. TechUK’s LDC Index noted that the West Midlands was second in the UK for digital infrastructure – a huge selling point for the region. In turn, the Levelling Up White Paper has supported WM5G with a £25m investment as the region has the best 5G coverage in the UK. The white paper announcements for the West Midlands on funding for finance and investment, becoming an innovation accelerator and a new partnership to become a “smart city region”, add to the levelling-up opportunity on offer to the region.
However, all nations and regions need a blueprint for focused investment in digital capacity – aiding their bids for funding, routes to secure inward investment, develop their own tech ecosystems and focus future interventions and programmes. At TechUK, we want to work with local leaders and the government levelling-up team to use our index to target and deploy opportunities for success where we know they can make the biggest impact. You can consult our LDC Index to find out the strengths and challenges of your region here.
Now comes the hard work. Businesses embracing digital technology, in turn increasing numbers of talented individuals with advanced skills, scaleups encouraged to grow, stay and base themselves in the region rather than look elsewhere. When this happens across the UK, we will know we are making progress toward levelling up.