The government has scrapped plans to appoint regional directors of levelling up and will work with mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) and local government instead. The decision was announced by the levelling up minister and Bishop Auckland MP Dehenna Davison in a parliamentary written answer.
Levelling Up directors for each of the nine English regions plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were announced in the Levelling Up White Paper published in February 2022. The White Paper said that its new approach to place-based development must:
“extend beyond committees to mean real people, with a profound understanding of their communities, to support the shaping of policy and delivery in their areas. Central government will therefore seek to improve the coordination of its collective efforts at the local level, its understanding of local issues and opportunities, and the scale and seniority of its local resourcing. To do so, the …government is pursuing a new approach to places through levelling up directors.”
Reporting the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ (DLUHC) re-think on the new positions, Dehenna Davison revealed there had been over 500 applicants for the 12 posts. In the meantime, however, she said, a new group had been set up in the Department to drive delivery of the levelling up agenda and there were now over 700 full time equivalent staff working on it. She added:
“This renewed and significant senior departmental capacity, combined with the progress of the English devolution agenda, means that we believe that we are best placed to deliver levelling up by working directly with MCAs, local government, and the devolved administrations. We will continue to co-ordinate government policy via means of specific, targeted place-based interventions.”
The scrapping of these senior posts will probably be greeted with mixed feelings in the region. The move may be seen by some as downgrading the importance of the levelling up agenda and depriving the region of the high-ranking official who, according to the White Paper, was supposed to act as the region’s champion. But a moment’s thought leads to the view that scrapping of these costly positions is welcome.
As Dehenna Davison revealed in her parliamentary answer, there are already 700 senior civil servants working on levelling up in the DLUHC. Surely that is enough, without adding another expensive layer of bureaucracy in each region, with each director doubtless needing his or her own offices and staff.
And to what extent would they really serve the region? The more sceptical may recall that when there was a whole government office for the North East (and every other region) its officials, being civil servants, were often regarded, fairly or not, as there to do the government’s bidding in the region rather than acting as a voice for the region in Whitehall
The increasing number of regional mayors, including one expected to be elected in the North East next May, will think that if anyone is to be their region’s champion it is them – not an appointed civil servant. And quite rightly so. If not, what is the point of a mayor?