4 Feb 2022

What does 'levelling up' mean for the Reading city region?

Amongst all the parliamentary gossip and smoke about Christmas parties, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove finally launched the long awaited (300 page) Levelling Up White Paper this week. The White Paper talks of ‘levelling up all parts of the UK’ but does it deliver anything for Reading, asks Nigel Horton-Baker, Executive Director, Reading UK.

R Gallery - Aerial View of Reading Blade, Abbey Ruins and NW

 

‘Levelling up is a mission’ the Government says, ‘part economic, part social, part moral – to change for good.’   Once you have waded through the 156 pages of socio-economic and placed-based theory, the White Paper can be summed up in its concise 12 Missions ‘about unleashing opportunity, prosperity and pride in places where, for too long, it has been held back. It is about growing the pie and everyone sharing in the fruits of this success, increasing not only peoples’ living standards but the length and quality of their lives’. So far, so good and very much the sentiments we have embedded in the Reading Economic Recovery Strategy ‘Powered by People'.

The introduction from Boris in his inevitable style goes on to say that ‘the answer to it lies not in cutting down the tall poppies or attempting to hobble (or is that nobble?) the areas that are doing well.’ Now I’m a bit worried! Our defacto city and the economic driver for the whole region is a ‘tall poppy’ and I fear the levelling up white paper may somewhat ‘nobble us’, if we allow it, all be it with reasoned argument as we do have one of the fastest-growing economies in the UK, one that is bouncing back quicker than most.

So, it is understandable to some extent that we should be expected to stand on our own two feet and manage our own destiny. Our Reading 2050 Vision, commitment to Net Zero by 2030 and our bid for City Status is testimony to our resilience, planning and aspiration.

 Having said that, Reading remains one the most unequal places in the country. We haven’t followed the national trend back to pre- Covid pandemic levels of unemployment - we are still above the national and regional average, ironically with more job vacancies than those registered unemployed; we have some of the most deprived communities by ward area in the country; and we have one of the largest gaps between annual average salary levels and ability to mortgage on the average house price.

 But it’s OK. The White Paper talks of ‘levelling up all parts of the UK’, being ‘united by tackling the regional and local inequalities that unfairly hold back communities’. So why do I, and other commentators such as Centre for Cities, worry when looking at the 12 Missions? Yes, the White Paper does have a clear mission; it is strategic - regions led by global cities but the White Paper goes little further than productivity-led innovation projects in the largest cities. It is short on long-term planning - a policy that seeks to solve a 100-year growing problem in just eight years – Reading, at least, has a vision to 2050; there is a lack of long-term funding and the jury is out on the definition of the metrics and measures of success.

And at the detailed level, I do have to question how it will prop up our Reading ‘poppy’ when research and development spend is being diverted out of the South East to benefit the rest of the country - in the report’s analysis it does not acknowledge or map any existing and emerging key sector clusters in the Greater Reading area.

The policy seeks to raise employment and productivity everywhere with the gap between the top performing and other areas closing. Does that mean slowing the growth of the South East / Reading in particular or are they really expecting other areas to overtake us in terms of growth rates when all the ingredients elsewhere are still being put in place?

In terms of delivering levelling up at the very local level, I worry about pride in place, such that people’s satisfaction with our town centre and engagement in local culture and community will be hard to achieve if Government support is not forthcoming to support our emerging town centre strategy – from Local Plan to 2050 Vision, though a promise of more Arts Council funding is on our radar.

We are unlikely to be one of 55 Education Investment Areas (EIAs) as our overall good performance in our schools shadows a few schools that really need help to raise the bar and we will be left to scrimp and scrape to support our Education Business Partnership colleagues to build on the 2000+ students who have participated in our programmes just before and over the pandemic period.

We might not be one of the 20 towns and city centres, starting off with Wolverhampton and Sheffield, undertaking ambitious, King’s Cross-style regeneration projects, transforming derelict urban sites into beautiful communities - but there is great opportunity that needs unlocking in the Minster Quarter and the Gaol.

The aspiration to support public sector driven social and affordable housing doesn’t match the aspiration to fund SME- led delivery using loans and regulate much needed tenant terms and condition and the quality of building in some parts of the private rented sector.

Above all, I worry about the policy on decentralising power. I have to say I like the notion of elected Mayors for big cities but, in our case, one size doesn’t fit all. Berkshire is a polycentric geography of small town and market towns and six unitary authorities, with City-like Reading at its centre totally under-bounded, lacking in public sector funding to tackle the communities and geographies of need in order to deliver on levelling up locally reducing drugs, alcohol abuse and some educational needs.

In part or whole, Berkshire could deliver the scale of other City Regions in the north but we need much more flexibility around local governance and targeting of resources. We have a globally recognised research led University innovating and driving growth in knowledge sectors in key areas such as climate, health and digital but I fear that the lack of a devolution option will render Reading and its neighbours unable to grow the levels of adult education and skills training to meet the needs of our local economy.

We need investment to bridge the skills gap and if we don’t get a devolution deal that is simply not going to happen. We have an unhealthy situation where we still have above national average unemployment levels, with 5000 registered unemployed and just over 6000 vacancies in the Greater Reading area, mostly in technology related, retail, healthcare, hospitality and construction. Reading is behind in levelling up its citizens and providing its businesses with the labour force it needs and educational and vocational skills training has to be a priority.

Despite this, I’m optimistic though! Boris and Michael need not fear. Greater Reading is moving forward as the global City of the Berkshire region, the newly rediscovered ‘agglomeration’ theory (mentioned in the white paper) is alive and kicking in Reading at the heart of the Thames Valley and we are creating our own entrepreneurs and innovation through world-class companies, the University and research institutions. We are the Government backed Tech Nation Digital Hub and we already have our Government funded Institute of Technology at the Activate Learning campus -Reading College. We have already achieved other mission priorities laid out in the White Paper to provide quality green and integrated bus services to Reading and the wider region and have a strategy for further improvement of Reading Buses.

Our town centre has suffered like all but there too we have a strategy to re-invent it as a welcoming city to live work and enjoy oneself. Culture and diversity will be at its heart but there we need some help to connect buildings to arts organisations and build capacity.

We have a vision and a sustainable economic strategy but if levelling up is to work at the local level then we can’t expect the private sector growth to deliver everything , investment must go into the public sector to enable it to lead, pump-prime and deliver the basic safety net.

At Reading UK our mission is a little less complex; ‘to boost business and enhance visitor experiences in a way that improves the quality of life of all in the Reading region’.  So, we are not a million miles apart from the intentions of the Government’s Policy and we sure don’t want our ‘Poppy nobbled.’ We have inherited the afore-mentioned social inequalities as a result of our continued economic success not because of the lack of it. We need proportionate financial support to make levelling up a reality for all and a Government deal with our public sector leaders in partnership with business to deliver locally what is needed for our citizens.  

I for one think the Reading City Region could do a ‘deal’ with Government and really would encourage our Prime Minister to drop in on Reading with an open mind and take a closer look as part of his nationwide tour to launch the Government ‘Levelling Up’ policies.


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