Levelling up isn’t just about money. It’s about growth, reform and trust.


Two years ago, with two words, Boris Johnson set the ultimate challenge for everyone who is working in public services. The freshly-elected Prime Minister’s promise to voters who felt left behind that his party would respond by ‘levelling up’ has sparked countless debates and column inches about what that means and how to do it.

All eyes now are on the new communities secretary Michael Gove, who publishes a white paper on the subject in the coming weeks that will set out his plans. In his recent speech to the Conservative Party conference, Gove said that levelling up meant four things: Strengthening local leadership, raising living standards, improving public services and giving people the resources they need to enhance the pride they felt in the place they live.

However, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak reported this week to be planning cuts of £2 billion for departments including local government and education, even while planning to lift the UK’s tax burden to the highest sustained level in peacetime, the discussion around ‘levelling up’ has quickly turned again to one that focuses on where to cut and where to splurge in a continuation of the give-it-and-take-it-away equation that has dogged our approach to national investment for so long.

It’s really important that we don’t get dragged into this as the only narrative as the annual spending review rolls around on October 27. Post-Covid and post-austerity, the landscape has dramatically changed. The shocks of the last ten years have demonstrated that growth that doesn’t address inequality simply exacerbates it longer-term. We’ve also seen that the fiscal costs of poverty are huge; that work no longer assures a route out of poverty; that our public services, conceived for different times, are now struggling to cope. Meanwhile questions about community cohesion and identity, gone too long unanswered, have stoked public cynicism in our capacity to respond to all of the above.

Investment isn’t just about money any more. And neither is levelling up. It’s about designing a strategy to share power and respect and to better understand who has it, who exercises it and who experiences its impact. And to deliver that we need a lot more than a budget based on tradition. We need to deploy our imagination, build a movement for people to co-design what they need – and hold our nerve.

At Inner Circle we are turning our years of expertise into drawing local levelling-up programmes around three key elements. They are inclusive growth, public service reform, and trust.

Inclusive growth means growth that people can see themselves in. So far the government’s plans to “Build, build, build” are based on a fading blueprint for economic growth that still assumes physical projects can deliver it. But new roads and railways don’t nourish human capital, and for levelling up to be work we need plans that extend education, skills, and decent salaries that can support the cost of living. We also need to grow the social infrastructure of care that enables women in particular to access and contribute equally to the workplace.

Public service reform has for too long been shorthand for regulation or intervention. If we are to build back better we have to set our gaze much higher and instead of propping up creaking systems, redesign them completely. Early intervention and prevention services, based on a deep, data-led understanding of people’s lived experiences and what they need to truly thrive, can take us away from a dependence on crisis response that only kicks in when only the most vulnerable start to sink. If we underpin this with support for the councils delivering these services then these programmes can be transformative.

Getting inclusive growth and public services right puts us in a good place to rebuild trust – but this three-point plan is a virtuous circle. Because without trust we can’t plan any of it. That’s why we co-design everything shoulder to shoulder with our clients and their community members. And that’s why we are building a movement of people who want better for all the places they care about. Community leaders, campaigners, workers, carers; the creatives and the planners and the agitators: everyone needs to be involved in the co-designing and delivery of a revitalised public sector. The measure of a 21st century leader is one who can be led by the community he or she has pledged to serve, protect – and set free.