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The transcript for ICAEW Insights podcast episode 31: Levelling Up won’t leave with Boris, and the big opportunity ahead

Iain Wright (I.W): Hello and welcome to a special Insights In Focus podcast, looking at what the future holds for the government's flagship levelling up policy, especially now that the country will have a new prime minister in a matter of weeks. What do the future of the policy and the direction of travel, and indeed the long-standing regional economic disparities levelling up is meant to reverse, mean for business and for chartered accountants. My name is Ian Wright. I'm Managing Director for Reputation and Influence at ICAEW, and I'm delighted to be joined by an experienced and insightful panel to discuss these issues surrounding levelling up. Majeed Neky is Head of Policy at the Levelling Up Taskforce at the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities. He's the civil servant helping to shape and drive forward this initiative in Whitehall. His expertise focuses on decentralisation and devolution of power across England, as well as local economies and economic regeneration and development. Gill Morris is Founder and Chief Executive of Devo Connect, the first public affairs agency of its kind in this country to focus on policy-based devolution. Gill is enormously well known and respected in parliament and around Westminster, and indeed around the regions, having had over 30 years’ experience working in and around the House of Commons, working with John Prescott on devolution, or the iteration of devolution, with regional development agencies in the 1990s. And I'm really pleased that Sara Longlands is here. Sarah is Chief Executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, a Manchester-based charity looking at how local economies can be revitalised and ensure that local people benefit. The centre has pioneered the concept of community wealth building. Sarah started her career in local government, working in County Durham, a place I know well, and North Yorkshire. She was also director of IPPR North, the dedicated think tank for the North of England, before rejoining CLES last year. Welcome to you all. I'm really pleased that you're here. Majeed, can I start with you? Just to provide a definition and a context in terms of levelling up, it strikes me that the levelling up phrase is a bit like industrial strategy. It can mean anything you want it to mean. So, what is levelling up? What is this entailing? And what's the specific problem government is trying to solve?

Majeed Neky (M.N): We were really conscious of this exact question when we were putting together the levelling up White Paper. And so, the first section of the White Paper is at pains to define and diagnose that problem, and to try and set out what the approaches might be. So broadly speaking, I think levelling up is about the fact that where you grow up in this country, where you live, affects how you get on in life. So that's true on a number of factors. So economically, you have massive disparities in things like pay and productivity, and things like skill levels and qualifications. Socially, you have massive disparities in health outcomes in social capital. And you also have disparities in things that are more intangible, like people's well-being and the pride they take in their place, how they feel about where they live. So, there are a number of these disparities, they're long standing, and in many cases, they're correlated. So, if you are, if a place is deficient in any one of these areas, the likelihood is that it may well be deficient in others as well. And you get a vicious circle where these things feed into each other. So, we've defined levelling up as reversing or moving towards at least reversing those unfairnesses. So, a very broad agenda, but focused around four pillars. So, the first is broadly economic around productivity, pay and the competitiveness of our cities. The second is around public services and spreading opportunity, particularly where it's weakest. The third is around pride in place and engendering that pride in place, supporting local areas to have that pride in place. And the fourth is around empowering local leaders. So, with all of these pillars, we've defined them in terms of we will particularly focus our efforts where these things are lacking. So, redressing those disparities across the country. So, it is an incredibly broad and incredibly ambitious agenda. But I think what we've done in the White Paper is to set out actually how all these factors come into play and how all these factors are interlinked. And in order to address these spatial disparities, you really need to take a holistic view of policy and look at how it actually interacts in places.

I.W: Sarah, when you're trying to devise policies and initiatives to actually help people on the ground, what Majeed said – does that all ring true? Does that work? And are you a supporter of what's in that levelling of White Paper?

Sarah Longlands (S.L): I think one of the things that we really liked about the White Paper was the fact that it acknowledges that we have a problem in this country; that prosperity is too focused on particular areas in particular geographies; that we need to do more to really spread the benefits of that wealth to more people. And we also welcome the acknowledgement that public services are part of a healthy and effective economy. So, I think that's certainly something that we welcome, and it's really good to see that acknowledgement from the UK government at Westminster that that is an issue. I think the challenge is in how you start to deliver it, and in how you actually start to make good on some of the very bold promises within this document, and how you do that with an effective system of devolution, and an effective system of local government. We know that that local government is under huge pressure at the minute because of the cost-of-living crisis and because of the constraints in terms of funding that we've seen over the last 10 years as a result of austerity. And it's how do you actually start to, you can't level up from the centre, you need to work with partners on the ground, local government, the public sector more broadly, but also with the private sector. That part of the levelling up question has not yet been answered.

I.W: And Gill I'd like you to touch upon what Sarah has just been mentioning there and really get real. So, levelling up might be well known in the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall. But you're having to deal with clients with stakeholders. Is it understood? Is it meaningful? Or are you spending time going: “Actually, this is what it means.” If you could have a client thinking about investment, job creation – do they not understand? Is levelling up not cutting through?

Gill Morris (G.W): I think it is cutting through, but I think the problem with it is that people don't understand what levelling up means. And it's interesting to hear both of you because yeah, I agree with you. I think we all know what we think it is. And people I talk to say: “Well, does it mean this? Will it deliver that?” And I think the problem with this paper is that it's actually got a lot of good stuff in it, I'm really pleased that it's there, certainly from a conservative government, because we know it's needed. What I know is across the north and across the country, people feel left behind. So therefore, there's a big appetite for people and mayors and political and business leaders who want that levelling up to happen. And they have their own definition of what that might be. So, they're setting the agenda. People like Andy Burnham will say: “Right, well, I know what we need.” The UK 2070 Commission, you know, the inter and intra regional disparities – we know that we wouldn't have levelling up and we wouldn't, post-Brexit, you know, the left behind or the feeling that people were not being listened to was amplified so well, I think, during the pandemic that people wanted a voice. So, I think they know that levelling up is about voice and representation. And it did a lot of good, I think for, certainly for Andy Burnham, for people to say, you know, “I'm speaking for you”, and that's ultimately why it's a good thing, because you will get that voice and the collaboration. So, I think it's a point of definition, is a problem, to say I've heard it, Sarah, you'll have heard it millions of times over the last, I don't know, it's not that long since it’s come out, but you know, the last few months. Well, what is it? Well, what does it do? You know, does it mean this, does it mean that? And then there's a big discussion about what it is. So, I think people like the metro mayors and political leaders have to go back to the centre and say: “This is what it means for us.” And I think, you know, what Michael Gove, your former boss, would have been saying, the reason we went for trailblazer status in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands is because it's sort of working. All the potential for levelling up to work, could work there. And it's a tick before the election.

I.W: Let's roll back a bit. Let's talk about the scale of the problem. Majeed, I think you've mentioned the phrase, you know, it's broad and ambitious. And let's not pretend this started as a result of Brexit, as a result of the pandemic. This has been going on for an awfully long time. So how do we compare to other nations? You know, is the regional disparity in England and the UK wider than, say, France and Germany? And are there particularly bad elements? Sarah, you must be dealing with this, looking at the analysis. How bad are we in terms of those disparities in the UK?

S.L: Well, some of the analysis produced by organisations like IPPR North have shown that when you compare the UK with other OECD countries, we’re amongst the worst in terms of regional inequality. I guess, well, how does that play out in practice? Well, between regions it means that if you live in the north or the West Midlands, you're much more likely to have poor health earlier in your life, you're much more likely to have no or very few qualifications and skills, and you're also much more likely to die younger. And actually, life expectancy in parts of the north is actually falling at the minute. And I mean, that's a really damning indictment on a country like ours, which is really wealthy and which has a good level of public services, or the fact that people are actually dying younger. So, I think it's quite a serious challenge when we compare ourselves to our peers, and I think the pandemic really revealed those inequalities and in technicolour: the fact that if you are growing up in a deprived area, if you are on a lower income than other people living in your area, you are much more likely to contract and die from COVID-19. So, I think COVID-19 was a real kind of, was really revelatory in showing that our economic model and the way that we try to level up hasn't been working well to date.

I.W: Gill, can I push you on the problems and the differences between, say, inter regional inequalities and intra? I mean, let's put it crudely – is levelling up just about London and the Southeast against the rest of the country? Or is it, you know, take the northeast, you know, Newcastle as opposed to, say, Middlesborough? Manchester, that you know very well, is it Manchester versus Rochdale and Oldham? What is the nature of inequality and disparities there?

G.M: I mean, they are there. And I think one of the things that has worked against is this idea that there's a north and south divide. And I think one of the things that's moved on from the decades-old debate about people being poor or rich or life chances, which has been recurrent, and it's taken many, many forms. Whether it's big society, localism, levelling up, whatever. Yeah, it is about, and it's not, I think one of the big things, even in London, you can live across the street or a couple of yards away and there'll be pockets of disparages. I think one of the things that UK 2070 Commission really highlighted was it's not about north/south and the rhetoric has changed. I think Andy doesn't go on, as much as he used to do, in Manchester about “We want what London’s got”, because maybe we don't want what London's got, because it's not the same geography. In the northeast the reason, probably, devolution hasn't worked or hasn't been as successful is because of geography and politics. And it doesn't quite work because people have a regional identity, or a feeling that they're not part of this geography, or there's a distinct problem, you know, in your constituency. I'm trying to get a northeast All-Party Parliamentary group to really voice in parliament that they're being left behind on HS2 East and obviously one of the poorer areas across the north.

I.W: I’ve got to say, reading, and I have read this several times, the first half – the analysis of the problem ¬– is genuinely interesting and insightful. It's really good to read. But could you just sort of summarise what we've been talking about? You know, as I said, this is not a five-year thing, this is not a 10-year thing. We've had decline, in blunt terms, from the north to the rest of the country for the best part of the century. So, this can't be overturned quickly. Could you just summarise what the White Paper says in respect of the scale of the problem?

M.N: Yes, so, the breadth of the problem we've already touched on. The fact that its economic, it’s social, it’s educational, it’s health. So, you know, to pick up on that point on the health inequalities, people in Blackpool have shorter lives than people in Wokingham, but they also will spend about twice the amount of that lifespan in ill health as well. So, it's not just about the lifespan itself, but also about the quality of that life. So, there are some really stark statistics, which we draw out in the White Paper. And it's often the case that they come together in areas. We also make the point, as you've rightly said, that this is not something that's arisen overnight, is something that has been going on and these gaps have existed in whatever form for around a century. And therefore, it's not going to be something that's resolved overnight. And so, we were really keen to do a couple of things here. Firstly, set out the problem and diagnose it, as we've talked about. Secondly, set ourselves some long-term policy objectives so that we could have that stability and that government, local government, civil society, the private sector, could have that stability to work together towards those common goals. So, that’s how we got to the 12 missions. And we also wanted to set out a programme around system change and how government actually works and how government thinks about places. So, this is the bit that's possibly less visible to the public, but a super important part of the programme for us trying to get government to think in a place-based way. Rather than national top-down policy, how is this going to affect this particular place? How can we tailor it for this particular place? How can we tilt spending? How can we flex what we're doing in order to make it work for every part of the UK?

I.W: Let's bring this up to date. We're recording this podcast middle of July. The prime minister resigned less than a week ago. I think it was a week ago – a week is a long time in politics. Conservative parties embarked upon a leadership contest that's going to span the summer, but we'll get a new prime minister, new government, by the fifth of September. Levelling up was the flagship of Boris Johnson's administration. He'd said on numerous occasions, you know, it was the most pressing domestic policy of his government. You might tell me I'm wrong on this, but I haven't heard any of the Conservative Party leadership contenders talk about levelling up. Majeed, I don't want you – you’re a civil servant – I don't want you to get into the political field too much. But let's be honest about this. Levelling up is dead, isn't it? It's going to die with Boris Johnson's administration.

M.N: So, as you say, I'm a civil servant. We serve the government of the day. So, there are certain lines. But I don't agree. I don't think it is dead. Look at the reshuffle and look at the fact that Greg Clark is now in charge of the department. One of the originators of the devolution agenda, he's been passionate about and has worked on this agenda for a long time, achieved a great deal in his field, and I don't think you would put somebody like him in charge of the department for however long it turns out to be if the government was not serious about continuing with levelling up. I think the analysis we've set out, the diagnosis of the problem, is very difficult to argue with. It's going to be a priority under a government of whatever stripe. I think once the new leader of the party and the prime minister is settled, they're still bound to deliver the manifesto in which the Conservatives stood in 2019, in which levelling up featured very prominently. So, I think there's a combination of factors here that mean that levelling up is not going anywhere. There might be tweaks, there might be shifts, inevitably, but I don't think it's going anywhere.

I.W: Sarah, do you agree with this? Because it does seem to me that, you know, it was pushed by the prime minister, but a different prime minister will have different priorities. Levelling up has died now, hasn't it?

S.L: Well, you know, you could argue that it, you know, it was only really just getting started. So that maybe it, you know, had a while ago to go before it was really a live policy agenda. And certainly, it was always an electoral strategy. It was never, you know, until we got this, it was very paper thin in terms of what it actually was, and what the agenda actually involved. So, I mean, I share your scepticism, I think it's been very damning, the fact that very few candidates have even referenced it. And, you know, I do fear for its future. Having said that, there is £11 billion worth of funding out there, which has been, you know, earmarked with a levelling up badge, if you like, and the process for applying for that funding is under way at the minute. So, I guess there is a question it might limp on in terms of that funding and how that funding is then allocated. Although having said that, there have been a lot of issues with actually the allocation of that funding and a lot of technical challenges and just trying to do the application process. And of course, levelling up also includes the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which is a replacement for the European structural funds that we had. So, in that sense, if levelling up did die, then what would happen to that UK shared prosperity fund? Because that's absolutely crucial in terms of trying to level up areas that have been left behind, or kept behind maybe, for a number of years now.

I.W: Gill, again, I'm going back to you. You're advising clients, you're advising people who might want to put money into the regions, and you were providing a robust defence about that whole levelling up term, the tagline. But is it the case of, you know, it's 10 minutes ago since we had Northern Powerhouse. We've had a plan for growth that seemed to go nowhere. We had industrial strategy. Levelling up is just going to be consigned to the dustbin of policy agendas, isn't it? Do you think it's dead along with the current administration?

G.M: No. Because I think the term levelling up might die, but the actual principle of what needs to be done won't, and it's been, as I say, it's been called other things. Boris promised an awful lot, for good reason, ie he's got an 80-seat majority and had to deliver. We're in very difficult times. I think the problem hasn't gone away, it's a rose by any other name really. Levelling up, as we discussed earlier, needs to be done. It hasn't been done. We have a piece of legislation. What I’m saying to clients is use this window of opportunity at the moment to influence and shape what good levelling up would look like. Whatever it is, it needs to be done, because we know the regional disparities are there, we know the health inequalities are there, it needs to be done. And any government – why not? It's a vote winner, literally. We know it's a vote winner, because Ben Houchen up in Tees Valley is saying: “Look, I've got this, I've got that.” You know, the people are feeling a bit more prosperous.

S.L: Just, I mean, I think on that, we've talked a lot about the kind of regional disparities and the social and health inequalities and everything. But I think there's also a really important point for your members, too, in terms of this. Regional inequality isn't just bad from a social justice point of view, it’s bad in terms of a place to do business. Because if your members are working with businesses who aren't able to get the people who have the skills, who have the education or the qualifications, who have got the opportunities, who've got, you know, have got a decent level of health. If they haven't got access to transport, to markets and to education and university, then that is not just a social problem, it's a really deep economic problem that will set business back for years to come.

I.W: Majeed, I'm going to come to you. This is a problem that has really plagued government for decades. And it's not necessarily about levelling up, it's not even necessarily about regional policy. You know, as we've established, this is meant to turn around decades of variable economic performance around the country, long-standing economic challenges. Actually, it's not even economic challenges. We've heard about health outcomes, and social and cultural issues. To do that properly, and successfully, you need a policy initiative that lasts 30 years. I think you said, Majeed, you know, long-term policies. But that's not going to happen, is it? You know, we've seen about how fast government changes policy, government provides new initiatives, businesses want certainty, continuity: can I plan and invest over a 10- or 20-year period? But governments are thinking short term. Can I win the next general election? Can I win the next battle in terms of the media 24-hour cycle? That misalignment between more business needs – the business cycle – and what politicians need – the political and parliamentary cycle – you're not going to reconcile that, are you? So, by its nature, the policy fails. How do we address that?

M.N: So, I think you're right to identify that as a long-standing issue. People are working on different timescales, in terms of politics, in terms of investment. That is absolutely fair. I think one of the refreshing things about the levelling up White Paper is that we acknowledged pretty head on some of the mistakes of the past, including the recent past. Chief among those was the kind of chopping and changing of policy. So both in terms of the kinds of institutional framework that you have for delivering local growth, which as we know, has undergone a number of changes in recent years. But also, just in terms of the, as you said, the banner under which policy is kind of brought together. So, we acknowledge that and we have done it, we're doing a couple of things to make sure that that doesn't happen. So, the first is around the 12 missions. We've deliberately set a 2030 time horizon for those that takes us beyond the next election, beyond the next spending review. And so departments and government are going to have to take a little bit of a leap of faith there and say, actually, if we want to hit these missions by 2030, we're going to have to look beyond the immediate cycle. So that's that. In the levelling up and regeneration bill, we are placing the government under a statutory obligation to report on progress annually against those 12 missions. That, you know, subject to whatever happens with the passage of that legislation in parliament, once that becomes law, that is then the law. A future government would have to adhere to it or repeal it. So that is then on the books, that is then the law. There will be an expectation in parliament, amongst the public, amongst organisations like Sarah's, like yours, that that progress update will be there. And if it isn't, people will want to know why. And if there isn't sufficient progress in there, people will challenge that. And they'll scrutinise that and that's right. And then the other thing, I think, that this paper does, and what we're trying to do, is it's not just about the policy themes, and you know, we need to improve transport. We've talked about tilting R&D funding out of London and the southeast, all of that stuff that we've put in there. It's also about the systems and the processes and the institutions that you have. So, for example, we've set out a long-term commitment to simplifying the funding landscape, because there's far too many different pots, it’s absolutely maddening to local authorities. Our previous secretary of state was incredibly strong on this and we're going to be setting out a more detailed plan on how we're going to simplify that landscape. So, that's a process change, that's an institutional change that will endure. You have devolution mission for every place that wants one to have a devolution deal by 2030. And we can argue about, you know, ‘framework versus deal’ type of approaches, or you know whether the framework in there goes far enough and all the rest of it. But the point remains that we will be setting up and supporting areas to set up new institutions, which then obviously, they have their own political cycles, but they are beyond the Whitehall, the Westminster political cycle. So, I think some of the institutional and systems reforms as Andy Haldane refer to them are incredibly important in giving this agenda longevity. So, missions, legislative requirement to report annually and systems change, I think it remains an issue, it remains a risk. But we've acknowledged it, we've addressed it head on, and we've tried to make sure they it doesn't happen to this agenda.

I.W: Gil, you've been at the heart of the political cycle, and you've been at the heart of the business cycle. Majeed sets out a really strong case about simplifying the funding structure, because businesses don't have the time to look at this. They might employ people like us, chartered accountants, to navigate, but they're running their own businesses, they’re sorting out supply-chain and skills issues. Despite what's been said, a minister will still want to say, “I want to announce something tomorrow, to get on the Today programme and look like I'm doing something.” How do you deal with this?

G.M: I think one of the big things that just, picking up on both of your questions, is the businesses, is the element of risk. And there's so much risk, whether you are trying to reach net-zero targets or trying to decarbonise and do other things. People are sort of saying, “Well, I'm not sure I can get that in with all that investment, I don't want to take that risk, that uncertainty, when it comes to local authorities and local government.” Similarly, they're sort of saying, “The money is not there.” It's a mess. I agree with you. Absolutely. It's complex. You talked about the shared prosperity fund – we know the money hasn't necessarily gone to the right places. And then we go back to that electoral sort of view, your short-term gem today, which I can see whether it's integrated rail plan, or where the pots of money are going, it's political. And whilst the principle is good, it's a minefield if you're running a business. People need your members and others to be advising them and saying, “Yeah, you can take the risk.” But at the same time, if you can't build a business because you can't get from A to B, because your transport connections are absolutely terrible – we need that investment and certainty. We need growth. We need investment in skills, the metro mayors need powers, real powers, and they within that they need to be given accountability. And I think that's what's missing in here. We need, you know, let them get on with it. That's the point, I think, you know, is they have power, they have a mandate, they need the investment. Let them get on with it and level up.

I.W: I think, Gill, you've got to the heart of it. And we're really getting into the meat of the issue. Now, Sarah, you mentioned £11 billion of funding, shared prosperity fund. But regardless, whether this policy survives or not, there is an urgent need to address these long-standing imbalances. Gill started to mention stuff, you know, “I can't do business unless I can travel.” Now it could be a road, it could be a real network. Why can’t I get from point A to point B? Why can’t I have the skills that I need for my businesses to thrive? Cut to the chase, move away from the policy – Sarah, what do you think really needs to be done to level up properly and successfully?

S.L: Well, I think what we need is a shift in in our economic model. We need wealth to work harder for people and places. We need wealth to actually connect to people's lives. Because all of us will know of places in the UK, and beyond, where you've got investment coming in, you've got new wealth being developed, and yet that doesn't touch the sides in terms of the issues and challenges that that place faces. Why is that happening? And it's happening because people don't feel part of that that project. They don't have the skills to connect, they don't have the ownership of the assets and the services that they're trying to be part of. And I think there's a fundamental need to re-examine that. And I think, coming back to that question previously, how you get that longevity is by devolution, as Gill was saying, to the combined authorities, but also to local authorities. Because Westminster can't level up, you can't level up from Westminster. You've got to give permission, you've got to give resources and powers to local authorities, the combined authorities, and to the devolved governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, because they know their contexts best and they know how to level up for their own communities. And you've got to trust them to get on with the job and stop trying to micromanage it, you know, from Whitehall.

I.W: You've all mentioned structure, institutions, you've mentioned personnel. Think on personnel – what's the role of chartered accountants in all of this? Because they're across the country, not just concentrated in London and the Southeast. They can be beacons of light of entrepreneurialism and advice and helping to grow a business. So, you've got Chartered Accountants running businesses, thinking about investment decisions – what do I do? Where do I relocate? Do I have to think about transport, about skills? And then you got members in practice, you know, advising businesses about how best to adapt to the modern world. So, Majeed, when you were writing the levelling up, in terms of the professional and business services – and I think chartered accountants are, you know, these trusted business advisers – what do you think is the role of the profession in levelling up?

M.N: It's a really good question. I think one of the differences between levelling up and perhaps industrial strategy, as you alluded to earlier, is that while that was very much a sector-based approach, this is very much a place-based approach. So, looking at how all those different capitals – social, financial, physical, human – and how those can come together in a place in order to make that place fire on all cylinders. So, having said that though, I think, given the breadth, the spread of the profession across the country, and the variety of the work that they do, your members, I think, they absolutely have a lot to offer in that national debate. And the at the national level, the insights that you can draw on, around how businesses feeling where the barriers are to investment, is invaluable in trying to inform government policy. And I know that the ICAEW does a lot of that and does a great job at that. I think probably for individual members and individual businesses, the key thing will be at the place level. It will be about engaging with local leaders, as many of them will already be doing, and being able to form those partnerships to work together on things like skills, work together on things like regeneration. I think that that is going to be the kind of focal point. And as I said, the spread of members, the spread of the work that they do across the country, stands you guys in really good stead to do that.

W.I: So, would chartered accountants be on your radar? You're talking about, you know, disengagement with the economy, with people, communities, owning and feeling part of it. Where does chartered accountancy fit into that?

S.L: I think it definitely does, is the short answer. And I think specifically in how, in sort of new types of economic instruments and models that are starting to emerge, for example, we've done a lot of work in Wales, and looking at employee ownership. And chartered accountants who are working with businesses who are perhaps with owners who are about to retire or, you know, have got into difficulties, stuff like employee ownership can be a really important route out of that. And I think chartered accountants are part of that question, but also some of the local authorities are looking at municipal finance schemes, and how they can actually be part of the investment family in an area and how they can use their own kind of reserves and financial clout to really bring in and support businesses in that area. And I think chartered accountants need to be part of that conversation and to bring their expertise and to bring their knowledge of risk and how capital finance flows in an area. So, I think I would, I guess, say to chartered accountants who are interested in this, you know, what are you doing in your own area to engage in the conversation? To be part of that discussion? Because if there are issues around skills or issues around business, then, you know, be at the table be part of the debate.

I.W: Would you agree with this, Gill? Have we got a strong role to play as a profession?

G.M: I think we have a really vital role to play. I'm just thinking, really thinking as you were talking about the, you know, the whole cost-of-living crisis, for example. People are looking at their pensions and people are looking at where they’re going to retire, can they afford it – the personal risk is there, there's that level, and then you've got the business risks that we've talked about. They are there. And then you've got the government saying, “We want you to deliver, we want you to get this productivity going. We need to get back on our feet, we need to say that things are moving again. We've got huge problems with supply chain, and the delivery piece promises, it's going to be really tough.” So, what you need there is sound advice, people to say, “This is the direction of travel.” The government, whether it's personnel or not, the point of all of this is around money, and making sure we get the investment, and, you know, making sure you can have policy till the cows come home. But unless you've got the money moving in the right direction, it doesn't mount up to a hill of beans.

I.W: I'll ask all of you. Is all of this about the economy, about money? You know, going back a few years, “It's the economy, stupid.” Or is this something more? So, is it a case of you know, you can prettify a high street, but if no one's got any disposable income, there are not going to be any shops there. It's chicken and egg stuff. Do you need to get the money into these places, and then it will develop, grow and thrive? Or do you do something with the cultural/social aspects, so people want to live there, and they will bring money, and they will spend money in the local economy? What comes first, Majeed, the economy or society?

M.N: You need to do it all at once. There's no other way. There's no silver bullet. You need to do it all at once. I think the paper makes, the analysis in the paper, makes this clear. You need those six capitals to be firing on all cylinders for a place to thrive. Our previous secretary of state talked about levelling up in terms of an economic, social and moral mission. I think that stands.

I.W: I mean, Manchester area, you're both familiar with the Greater Manchester area. Did they put the groundwork in place and then people came? You know, the economy followed rather than the other way around. Is that a fair summary?

S.L: If we're going to talk about Manchester that might be a whole other podcast. But I think, you know, if you go back to the days of Adam Smith, you know, the founder of our modern economics if you like, he always argued that economics was as much about the social as it was about the money. And it was about tackling issues like poverty, and that it was a moral mission. So, I think we've got to be inspired by that and remember that, because sometimes that gets lost, we get we get sucked into the, “Oh, it's just about GDP. It's just about growth.” But actually, for me, it’s about local economies. And the question for local economies is: where is the money going and who is benefiting? And those are the questions, I think, that need to frame the discussion about what our future success will look like.

I.W: Gill, what's your view on all this?

G.M: You've got to get the economy working, you've got to get the country working. I think you've got to get the people who are not working – it's the whole thing around spending, which you're all talking about. But the word I really think is missing, and we've missed a little bit today, is really it's about productivity. I do think that you can't get the productivity unless you get the investment in education. We've got a bizarre situation at the moment where there are loads of jobs and nobody doing them. We need to think about the skills, skills, skills to get that innovation working that goes back into the economy. So, it's a circular argument, but it's not one thing. We've got to get the economy and people working. And I mean, personal economies, but also business economies, it's got to work. People have got to be working and producing and delivering ambitions, but which are in here. And that's my whole thing, that as you actually drive the money down into the regions, into those economies, and let them get on with them and be accountable to government, I think we will have a really wonderful time in 2030.

S.L: I think that question about economies, because I think sometimes in accountancy, if I can stereotype, but I think sometimes it's about, we just need to get a big lump of money, and then we can use that to pay for all the stuff we want. Actually, it's about, you know, that model you see in here, it talks about, we need to grow the pie everywhere for everyone. And it's like, it's not good enough just to grow the pie, you have to grow the pie differently. Because if you grow the pie, there's going to be loads of people out there who are better able to gobble up more of it than others. So how do you make sure that you're growing the pie differently in the first place? So, you're giving people ownership of the economy, and you're building with what you have, building on the assets on the strengths on, you know, on the on the six capitals, if you like, from within areas, and I think that that's the key for me.

I.W: We're running out of time, so I want the really complex question. You know, quick-fire answer. But Gill, Sarah, you started to talk about the future and the vision thing. And I suppose I want to finish on, well, what would success look like? We're sat here again, doing another podcast in 2030, 2035 – what does levelling up successfully delivered look like for the northeast, for the whole of the northeast? And how will that perhaps be different to, say, Yorkshire and the Humber? Gill, you were starting to be very articulate about what you'd look like in 2030. What's your sense about what this would look like?

G.M: Well, politics is an issue, obviously, in the northeast. But beyond that, I think I'm very much a glass half full kind of girl when it comes to levelling up and devolution. I think it is possible for us to get that economy working, but we need to make, you have to fight for it. You need rationalisation of the pots, you need to make it simple, you need to get the inward investment, you need to get the infrastructure, you need to get the jobs and the skills and you get the economy working. That is potentially the first stop. But equally, we don't know. But the government have got to get behind it. We cannot have, which we have had over the last few decades – it depends who's in power. So, you know, Theresa May wasn't so keen on this, this wasn’t priority. Levelling up, which is going back right to the first question, is essential. If we really want to grow the economy and get this moving, you need to get rid, or try and remove, the regional and interregional and intra regional disparities. So my vision for the future is it will work, because I'm an optimist and I would like to see it.

I.W: Sarah, are you an optimist?

S.L: I am an optimist. I think I would say three things. I think, first of all, it's not that far away. But you know, people are starting to have the chance to live a good life. And that means good skills, good health, and a reduction in things like child poverty, which has been rising hugely in the northeast. Second thing, businesses are able to get access to capital, and that they are able to set up in the northeast and run successful businesses and employ people, and those businesses are coming from all different shapes and forms. You might have bit companies, you might have cooperatives, you might have worker-owned businesses, you might have employee ownership, and all sorts of different flavours of business, which are setting up and finding that they have a good business and a good financial outlook. And then thirdly, your football clubs are all owned by their fans. And people have got a real sense that they're part of the community.

I.W: Well, that's a whole other podcast. Majeed – 2035, you’re having a levelling up White Paper reunion with Michael Gove and Neil O'Brien. And when you were writing this in your head, what was the team thinking? What's the vision of success and delivery? How will you measure that? And how will it look?

M.N: So, tangible, visible improvements across all of the missions. So, better transport in local areas, more people undertaking high-quality skills, more people literate, numerate, better health outcomes in the places where they're worst at the moment. So, all of that, the fundamentals, but topped off, I think, with strong, empowered local leaders and institutions who've got the powers and the funding that they need to make these things real in local areas and to partner with government to do that.

I.W: I think we could go on for a lot longer, but we've run out of time. That's it for today. Can I just say many thanks, it was a really interesting and engaging conversation. So let me thank our guests Majeed, Sarah and Gill. And thanks to the audience for listening to this special episode. If you've enjoyed it, remember to rate review and share. And of course, subscribe to ICAEW Insights wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you very much.