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Environmental capital must be central to any sustainable plan for levelling up

This post is by Dame Fiona Reynolds, trustee of Green Alliance. She writes here in a personal capacity.

Levelling up is both a powerful social imperative and – now – a political necessity. Millions of voters, not least those in the ‘red wall’ seats that were so crucial to the Conservatives’ 2019 election success, are watching to see if the promises made then will be fulfilled. 

For such an important political goal we have waited a long time for the Levelling Up White Paper.  And for all its faults – of which more below – it represents a genuine attempt to harness ambition, policies and spending across government to its ends. It’s ambitious, and cross-cutting, and for that it deserves praise.  

The trouble is, we’re not very good at delivering cross-government commitments, nor, crucially, at thinking and acting spatially. As the white paper itself points out, other cultures (especially France and Italy) are much more ‘place-based’ in their thinking. Moreover, their administrations are more devolved than ours, enabling real attention to place; whereas we cling on to central control. We assume that centrally-generated policies will deliver the same outcomes everywhere, and it seems to surprise and frustrate us when they don’t. So the white paper needs to address these weaknesses with particular vigour.

Levelling up is not a new idea or a new problem; nor have we no experience of trying to address it. Notably, the post-war reconstruction committee commissioned Sir Montague Barlow to review industrial policy with a view to spreading jobs more evenly across the country. He reported in 1940 and his work contributed among other things to the creation of the New Towns: a decentralisation programme the like of which we have not seen since. But as with many post-war ambitions, social policy proved less alluring than the results of a market-driven economy, which has steadily reinforced the wealth and strength of London and the South East. Even well-meaning attempts to benefit more remote parts of the country have had some perverse effects. For example, building fast roads into Cornwall simply sucked jobs and investment out of the county towards the metropolis.

But now, as then, this white paper recognises that a whole raft of policies need to come together to address the complex reasons why places fall behind. Thus as in the 1940s there are ambitions to improve health, wellbeing, skills and training, and education outcomes, as well as to invest in digital connectedness, infrastructure, housing and jobs to give everyone the opportunity to thrive. Though there are already arguments about the details of the white paper, it is a genuine attempt to lever policies across government to focus attention on places in a more integrated way. And to achieve integration the white paper is structured around the ‘capitals approach’. 

The capitals approach recognises the different qualities of the elements we depend on, and is a useful organising framework to ensure we harness the different kinds of resources we use to achieve change.  Thus the white paper identifies Physical Capital (infrastructure, buildings), Human Capital (skills and health), Intangible Capital (innovation and ideas), Financial Capital (£resources), Social Capital (communities, relationships, trust) and Institutional Capital (leadership, capacity and capability).   These capitals shape the plans and programmes detailed in the White Paper.

This looks impressive, until …. wait.  How can you have a capitals approach that omits the most fundamental capital of all – the environmental resources on which literally everything else depends? And how can you make plans for the long term future without the government’s net zero target and 25 Year Environment Plan being absolutely central? This seems more than odd.  So is this omission deliberate, or a mistake?

Since Michael Gove was environment secretary in a former (not so distant) life, the latter seems unlikely. And Defra will most certainly have argued for including strong environmental commitments. So it is hard to conclude other than that it must have been a deliberate decision to construct a plan for levelling up without the environment at its heart.

So what’s going on? As Shaun Spiers recently described, the government’s commitment to net zero is under pressure. So perhaps this represents a signal to these backbench pressures. It should not. 

Because an environmental capital-based approach presents an opportunity for levelling up: perhaps the best opportunity of all. Establishing sustainable jobs and businesses, settlement patterns that prioritise quality of life, access to nature and other essential services, and grow a new pride in place for all citizens that is green as well as beautiful -these are ambitions people want, and would be much better served by a green approach to levelling up. The levelling up plan could and should support climate action and nature recovery, and likewise climate and nature recovery plans should also contribute to levelling up.

Michael Gove has made a start. Adding the most important capital of all, Environmental Capital, would prove he not only remembers what he said when he was environment secretary, but is serious about sustainable levelling up: the only kind, in the long term, that will really count.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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