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Last week, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) published the long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper. Setting out the Government’s approach to its flagship agenda, it includes a detailed analysis of the status and drivers of geographical disparities in the United Kingdom, along with an overview of the systems changes and policy programmes that will be introduced to attempt to address these inequalities.

In this blog, we set out the importance of building local partnerships and coordination capacity to deliver complex public services, in order to support the social objectives of levelling up, and outline emerging GO Lab research on the lessons from past attempts to join up local public services.

Local capacity and levelling up

At the heart of the levelling up agenda is an ambition to address the impact of spatial inequalities on both social and economic outcomes. Some inequalities may be ameliorated by hard infrastructure, but others will require tackling social problems. To this end, the recent Levelling Up White Paper identifies improving public services as a key component of the agenda. However, with limited additional funding for social programmes, improving social outcomes will require innovative approaches. One way in which improvement might be achieved is through the ‘joining up’ of public services to better address the serious, cross-cutting issues which most dramatically impact upon people’s lives.

As the White Paper acknowledges, “the depletion of civic institutions, including local government, has gone hand-in-hand with deteriorating economic and social performance”. Rebuilding this capacity will be crucial to local public service improvement. The problem is not new: over the last 25 years successive governments have pursued a range of (often disjointed) initiatives to improve the provision of public services for cross-cutting issues, be it through legal reform, joint funding models or other measures.

We are not the first to explore these issues. Most notably, in 2015 the Institute for Government (IfG) attempted to identify key central government attempts to join up public services since 1997. And our own work has explored local perspectives on collaboration to tackle complex cross-cutting social issues. Are we rallying together? examined ten cases of innovative, local, cross-sector collaborations to improve public service provision. However, there appears to be little work exploring the link between central intervention and local coordination capacity.

Learning the lessons from 25 years of ‘joining up’

We are investigating the lessons from past attempts to address public service fragmentation, to better understand how the current government can rebuild local capacity to support more coordination in local public services. We hope to bridge what we see as a gap in past work, between central government action and the impact it has on local areas. And in doing so, we hope to speak to a number of the themes articulated in the White Paper.

First, by extending and deepening IfG’s analysis, we hope to develop a comprehensive picture of the attempts by central government to join up public services from 1997 to present. This will cover a range of programmes, including the New Deal for Communities, the Life Chances Fund, and the Towns Fund. We will explore the centrally-held levers with which national government has acted such as legislation, funding, and ‘soft’ measures like targets – as well as the elements of local institutional capacity these interventions have aspired to bolster.

In addition, the White Paper acknowledges that “coordination across many different arms of policy” will be required to achieve meaningful change. We will seek to identify the links between these different programmes, to better understand the coordination (or lack thereof) across the many different departments and policy programmes attempting to achieve local joining up.

However, as well as exploring the central government perspective, we also want to gain a better understanding of the impact these programmes have had at a local level. To better understand the “inefficiencies, decision-making complexity and reporting burdens which result from the number of local funding pots and the strings attached to them”, we want to examine the ways in which 25 years of programmes have been experienced by particular places, and the extent to which interventions have complemented or clashed with one another.

Finally, we will tackle some of the more fundamental questions surrounding the relationship between central government and local places. The root cause of the present lack of local capacity is the hollowing out of local government, with power taken away from local authorities and centralised. In this context, have centrally-led programmes been enough to boost local capacity, and indeed, can they ever be? Or do we need more fundamental reform? The White Paper sets out an ambition to empower local decision making and details a devolution framework, but does it go far enough?

While our analysis is driven by past policy, we hope that by exploring these issues, we can support central government, local government and partners in the voluntary sector to build local capacity to deliver better public services. Levelling up looks set to shape the domestic policy agenda for at least the next decade. If it is to achieve its ambitious social objectives, and really improve the outcomes of those on the losing end of the UK’s spatial inequalities, learning the lessons of past efforts will be crucial.