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Why we need to be levelling up local evaluation

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This week marks one year since the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper – the clearest definition yet of what levelling up means, setting out twelve ‘missions’ to level up the UK. Our Levelling Up policy page summarises those missions and the evidence on what could work to deliver them.

Whether the policies currently being pursued will lead to success across the 12 missions has been debated since the white paper was published. For example, WWG Director Henry Overman discussed his personal views in a piece for CEP Centrepiece from last summer.

The need for better data persists

With changes in Prime Ministers and the wider economic context, we might also ask whether all 12 missions have the same priority for the Government now as they did a year ago. In his speech at Bloomberg last week, the Chancellor suggested that raising productivity levels among the UK’s major cities outside of London is key to his ‘everywhere’ strategy, and the framing of the latest round of the Levelling Up Fund was focused mostly on achieving economic growth. Alongside this, there has been less focus on some of the other areas, like the missions to improve pride in place and wellbeing.

What hasn’t changed is the need, highlighted in the white paper, for better data on, and evaluation of, levelling up and local growth policy. Improving the incentives for evaluation and experimentation, and the accessibility of local data, would greatly improve the use of evidence in this area, leading to more effective policies to improve lives and opportunities.

Progress has been made, with last week’s release of lower-level geographic productivity estimates a helpful step in improving available data, and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund representing a great opportunity for more local evaluation and experimental designs.

Increased robust evaluation would be welcome

Further steps to clear the way for more evaluation would be welcome though. As we have argued before, the current incentives for places to carry out robust evaluation of their local economic growth policies are poor, and their capacity to do so is limited by delivery pressures and tight budgets. But evaluation is essential if we are to understand what works in driving growth and economic development. We need to build capacity at the local level in the longer term, while providing opportunities now for places to take part in evaluation programmes with minimal burdens placed on them, like those the Education Endowment Foundation offers to schools. This would allow places to benefit from a better understanding of effective policy for their populations.

The Levelling Up White Paper discussed the potential for a new body that would coordinate between central and local policymakers and help improve incentives for evaluation. Something like this could both support more evaluation now, and break down some of the barriers to places being able to build longer-term capacities in impact evaluation, moving us towards better policy in this area.

What’s next for levelling up?

Despite remaining uncertainty around the specifics, the core ethos of levelling up – that there needs to be a greater balance in opportunity and prosperity across the country – has embedded itself in UK politics and seems set to endure. Delivering on this is a huge opportunity for policymakers and researchers to work together to understand which interventions work to improve people’s lives. But to seize that opportunity there needs to be serious thinking about how places can be supported to evaluate now, and build the capacity to run their own evaluations in future.