Levelling Up: “…the ketchup of catch up* …”

‘Levelling Up’, which is now almost part of everyone’s lexicon, is apparently all about helping “…the town and cities left behind...”. *

However, a recent speech by the PM (billed as the one which would define what this election winning slogan actually meant) failed to convince most commentators and MPs that Levelling Up was a coherent strategy and not just a slogan.

But what does ‘Levelling Up’ actually mean for the commercial property sector and our built environment?

I wonder what the long-term impact will be of relocating Government departments to northern towns on the Government’s Levelling Up radar - such as the Treasury Campus to Darlington and the UK Infrastructure Bank in Leeds.

Some property professionals I’ve spoken to think that:

  • Currently, there is insufficient vacant Grade A office buildings in both locations so will developers and owners start to think about upgrading their Grade B premises - whilst contending with economic viability of such developments in a post-Brexit and post-Covid environment
  • Local businesses, faced with inevitable rent hikes, might react as Cornish folk do to second home buyers
  • If neither Darlington, Leeds, or the surrounding region have a sufficiently deep talent pool to meet all the specialist skills needs of the Campus and the Bank, will there will be an inevitable influx of ‘immigrants’ from London, Birmingham, Manchester etc.
  • If so, what impact will this have on:
    • Local Housing
    • Infrastructure – especially roads and public transport
    • Hospitals, GP surgeries, dentists, etc
    • Schools

But consider the beneficiaries of this influx - the hospitality sector, leisure, retail, grocers and of course residential and commercial property professionals. 

Before champagne bottles are cracked open, let me introduce a cloud to this silver lining. Is there sufficient funding for this local development and building boom?

True, there is a £4.8bn Levelling Up fund which will act as bait for commercial (UK and overseas) investors who want to ride this dash for growth chariot.  Furthermore, developers and banks will engage because they know the rewards will be high – no subsequent government will ever renege on Boris’s Leveling Up rhetoric – so their investments will be safe.  However wider private sector development will also be key to ensure a “sustainable hub” rather than an “government island”.

What impact will this intervention strategy have on local communities and people in the long term?

To answer that question, I need look no further than my own city – Liverpool.  In the early 1980’s, despite almost universal disapproval from his cabinet peers, the then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, bravely set up the Merseyside Development Corporation, which oversaw restoration of the city's Albert Dock and inaugurated a series of garden festivals, the first of which was held in Liverpool, in 1984.      

20 years later Liverpool earned the much-cherished UNESCO World Heritage Site status which was subsequently stripped from Liverpool a couple of weeks ago because of a £5 billion waterfront redevelopment, which includes Everton football club’s new £500m stadium

Ironic isn’t it. A celebration of our past is cancelled because the City is building for the future.

UNESCO aside, I believe that government intervention works. Like the Heseltine vision for Liverpool, Leveling Up could have a profound and prolonged impact on the (perceived)       “… left behind*..” communities and act as a catalyst for commercial enterprise which will inevitably follow in the wake of the Central Government funding mega boat.

Even before Rishi’s relocation package for Darlington, commercial companies were already breaking through the golden embrace of London and the South East. Channel 4 recently chose Leeds for its head office – spearheading a national network of regional hubs (Bristol, Glasgow, Manchester) - and Goldman Sachs has opened an office in Birmingham. Although it is fair to say that many London firms now consider north-shoring administrative functions an established practice. 

But for long term structural change to take place you need to combine cash with vision. Heseltine famously corralled the CEOs of the big London banks and took them on a ‘dark tourism’ bus ride round Liverpool’s most extreme areas of deprivation - the unfinished housing estates and the abandoned high-rise homes which had replaced the classic Georgian terraces of Everton.  This current initiative provides a real opportunity to reposition key policy makers throughout the UK and thus provide a more detailed understanding of economic and social diversity across the Country.

Will the strategy prove a successful catalyst for development and economic growth in Levelling Up areas, or just an exercise in relocating government departments.

The critical question is will Boris’s vision transcend short term political gain and prove as profound and lasting as Heseltine’s has proved?

I hope so.

*Boris Johnson, 15 July 2021

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Phil Winckles
Phil Winckles 09 August 2021
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