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UK government’s ‘levelling up’ challenge is ‘enormous’

The UK government faces an “enormous” challenge to implement its ‘levelling up’ proposals by 2030, according to one infrastructure expert.

In a white paper (332 pages / 104MB PDF), which does not include any new government funding, ministers set out 12 ‘national missions’ that they said would improve wellbeing and “change the economic model” of the country by the end of the decade.

The missions include pledges to narrow regional pay, employment and life-expectancy gaps, lower serious crime rates, improve the quality of rented accommodation, boost research and development funds by 40% in all four UK nations, provide 5G coverage for the majority of the population, and promises to improve higher and lower education standards.

The white paper also outlined plans to bring regional public transport connectivity “significantly closer to the standards of London” - including integrated ticketing and simpler fares – and “devolution deals” for every part of England that wants one, with “powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement”.

Robbie Owen, infrastructure and government affairs expert at Pinsent Masons, said: “The public transport and devolution national missions are certainly to be welcomed, but the key to success by 2030 will be in the funding reforms necessary to achieve them. The government has a big task on its hands in delivering them both.”

“Greater regional devolved powers and simplified, long-term funding will be crucial to delivering the infrastructure - including public transport - needed for levelling up, but the challenge to do that by 2030 is enormous,” he added.

Owen said that fundamental change is urgently needed to how public funding for local transport and other infrastructure is allocated. Detailed oversight by central government officials, ministers and special advisers, and short-term funding pots, will need to be quickly replaced by long term devolved funding deals, he added.

“The government will quite simply need to ‘let go’, in relation to individual project funding allocations and business case approvals, if it is to achieve these missions by 2030. And the government will need to do that in a way that so far it has not been prepared to do even with the most advanced devolved areas of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and not just through the enhanced devolution deals to be agreed for those areas,” Owen said.

“There was mention again of ‘Project Speed’, compulsory purchase reform and planning changes, but no fresh eye-catching details. It was also disappointing that the commitment in the Queen’s Speech of 2021 to legislate in a planning bill for locally-led urban development corporations was not repeated. The industry continues to wait for the government’s long awaited planning reforms to see how the planning process will be streamlined and made more efficient, which alongside fully devolved funding will be essential in order to deliver the vital transport infrastructure and housing projects needed to level up England,” he added.

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