At the Labour party conference in Liverpool, we co-hosted a panel event to ask: "What is Labour’s vision for levelling up and devolution in England?"

The expert panel consisted of:

  • Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester
  • Christian Wakeford MP, Member of the Transport Select Committee
  • Professor Francesca Gains, Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of Policy@Manchester
  • Phillip Woolley, Head of Public Services Consulting, Grant Thornton UK

At the session, held by Grant Thornton and the Institute for Government, speakers discussed Labour’s plans for reducing regional inequality, the balance between central government action and local and regional leadership, and how to ensure that devolution is a success.

Governance models for devolution

An overarching theme from the session was how devolution would work in practice. Panellists suggested that the slow rollout so far was due to there being little appetite for devolution. There needs to be more positive engagement to overcome the political barriers and communicate the benefits to local people. For example, Francesca Gains said Labour needed to reposition itself beyond the mechanics of devolution to what it can deliver in terms of “better jobs, sustainable communities, thriving communities, where families can stay together and people can live their best lives”. She also touched on participatory democracy and giving less represented people a voice through other mechanisms, such as communities of interest, that can feed into the work of elected councillors and the combined authority.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) was held up as a key example of devolution in practice. “What is Labour’s vision for levelling up and devolution in England? The answer simply is, it's Greater Manchester's,” said mayor Andy Burnham. His view was that Greater Manchester is a “laboratory for the country” with its ecosystem of 10 boroughs potentially offering a way to prove concepts that can then be taken UK-wide.

However, panellists acknowledged that successful devolution isn’t a case of one size fits all. Christian Wakeford, MP for Bury South, suggested devolution was more about creating a “blueprint” that offered a way for different places to set out their (different) aspirations. Phillip Woolley added: “Governance models, just like economic plans, need to emanate from the character of the place and what works in that place, and that won't always be the mayoral model. Giving places different options that they can work with, but obviously those options need to be framed around a delivery structure that can work in a number of different ways.”  

“Governance models, just like economic plans, need to emanate from the character of the place and what works in that place."
Phillip Woolley

Ultimately, however, despite some concern around how the model of combined authorities and metro mayors might affect other local place-based political leadership and their autonomy, it was noted that devolution policies had been seen to work well in terms of opportunity, better jobs, stimulating innovation and empowering local people. 


Net zero to catalyse levelling up 

Panellists discussed how Labour’s ‘fairer, greener future’ roadmap and net zero targets will be the catalyst that drives the levelling up process. Greater Manchester’s journey to net zero, for example, will see the city become carbon neutral by 2038 – and a key part of that process is about improving transport, homes and jobs.  

“You improve the basics for people by moving them to future-facing, net zero solutions,” said Andy Burnham.

Transport back under public control? 

Transport changes will be central to levelling up through the net zero agenda. Already Greater Manchester’s bus system is back under public control to speed up decarbonisation and allow for future transport integration, with its mayor reasoning that “when you control the system, you can control the pace of change”.

He added that his vision for transport in Greater Manchester was similar to that of London, with integrated ticketing. He added that in the future, the transport system would likely be powered by a mix of electric and hydrogen, and that this use of hydrogen could create new local industry. 

Similarly, the drive to decarbonise housing is not just an opportunity to provide decent homes but could also stimulate training and employment opportunities through retrofitting and other home improvement programmes.

Levelling up in health and education 

Levelling up is also about tackling educational, health and other regional inequalities. Partnerships with universities were seen as important in helping tackle both climate change impacts – through innovation in advanced materials and advanced manufacturing, for example – and providing future skills and opportunities for young people.  

Christian Wakeford said that investment in local services required a more holistic strategy than just funding, however – particularly in education and skills training. He said there needed to be more flexibility to avoid “creating a legion of MBAs and large companies investing in degree apprenticeships for their workforce”. 

He also raised the issue of health inequalities, in particular, a widespread failure to tackle mental health and addiction. 

Funding – central v local authority finance 

Funding issues were raised several times in the discussion in regard to making devolution a success and bridging changes of government.  

It was noted that a successful devolved administration can act as a credible partner for delivery, working with governments of different political persuasions effectively. But panellists also talked of the need to get away from going cap in hand to central government for small pots of biddable funds by taking a block grant type approach. Block grants, such as those given to Wales and Scotland, with ringfenced funding were seen as key to enable longer-term and sustainable local planning.  

Phillip Woolley also raised the issue of local government finance. “Around local government reform, though, local authority finances are in significant difficulty. Our modelling suggests that without serious corrective action, one and six are in serious trouble in the next 18 months to two years. So that's another area that needs to be looked at, and addressed as a matter of urgency.” 

Listen on demand to the full audio recording of the session.

You can also read our analysis of the levelling up agenda in Levelling up: agreeing and delivering on priorities.