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How will Levelling Up work? A view from northern Devon

How will Levelling Up work? A view from northern Devon

3 November 2021

Challenges of a coastal and rural district

The topic of Levelling Up, what it is, what it should look like and how it could, should and will work is one that impacts on every part of the country in our own distinctive, yet overlapping ways, writes Chris Fuller, economic development officer, Torridge District Council. Will it cost us, benefit us, pass us by, or even happen is a constant source of discussion and we welcome NICRE’s Briefing Paper setting out the strategic case for equitable recognition of rural economies in Levelling Up policies (Nov 2021).

Down here in Torridge, northern Devon, we were delighted to have suddenly found ourselves listed as a ‘Priority’ place following the announcement of the Levelling Up and Community Renewal Funds in spring 2021. I definitely won’t confess that we knew what those meant at the time, or even that we fully know what they mean now as we continue to await for outcomes to be announced on both fronts. But it does fill us with hope that the plans we have been working hard on will be supported and both opportunity and change fostered within the local area.

As a coastal and rural district, we face a range of challenges. From the third lowest workplace average earner for a full-time worker (ASHE, 2020), to the second lowest rate of adult social mobility (Social Mobility Index, 2016), low qualification rates and productivity levels well below those of Cornwall - all of which indicate that we cannot continue along the path we’re collectively on. But change is not straightforward and goes well beyond regeneration and infrastructure - for example, access to services is definitely not equal for everyone. We know that year-on-year the difficulties to recruit in education and healthcare, to name just two, become ever more acute which has a monumental impact on the sense of everyone being, to use the term, level.

Cross-boundary partnerships

But for that to be possible we need long-term support, working in partnerships to enact policies which may well take time to come to fruition. Those partnerships often cross boundaries as well - our Northern Devon Futures movement, for example, reflects our commitment to working with North Devon Council to work collectively as a region and achieve far more together. But constant bidding processes often divide and force us to all look only at ourselves, rather than think of that bigger picture, and most definitely don’t allow for those longer-term pieces of work to find the right funding to sustain them over time.

The Future High Street Fund in 2019 and 2020 was a fascinating learning curve for us. We were able to develop a partnership with our Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (now of course Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) advisor and really move plans forward. As a small authority we hadn’t previously been able to spend time working up big schemes like this with an emphasis on dreaming big at their heart. That partnership was hugely appreciated - even if, ultimately, we weren’t successful. But it moved us all forward a long, long way. The opportunity to build those plans collectively, and as a region, with central government agencies joining us in that journey, listening to us, supporting us and then, ultimately, working with us to explore the finances, is a nirvana that we would love to see emerge. There is a lot going on in northern Devon, innovative plans afoot to cherish and capitalise on natural capital, marine, green innovation and more, with our communities and fairness central to all. But now we need to really move forward together - Levelling Up for all, in the right way.

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