City Makers’ Forum: The Reality of Levelling Up

Our City Makers’ Forum, which we run in partnership with Hatch, brings together the next wave of London leaders to debate the big urban challenges and find shared solutions. Our latest event focused on what Levelling Up really means for those working in housing, regeneration and economic growth.

The view from London and the north

John Wrathmell from Greater Manchester Combined Authority kicked us off by explaining how colleagues in the north are responding to the Levelling Up agenda. For them, the Levelling Up white paper was incredibly welcome as it echoes many of the arguments they’ve been making about the need for a greener, fairer, more prosperous city region.

One way that Levelling Up is translating into action in Greater Manchester is through a focus on innovation. Officers are tasked with ensuring that the world-class research taking place in Manchester’s academic institutions translates into businesses, economic growth and jobs.

Abi Gbago and Jennifer Daothong then gave us perspectives from LB Barking and Dagenham and LB Lewisham respectively. Both highlighted that we cannot pretend that London doesn’t need levelling up and there is a task for the capital to make that case to central government. Stats from LB Barking and Dagenham indicate that residents across the borough are experiencing poverty, deprivation and significant challenges in their day to day lives.

A map of Barking and Dagenham indicates that the majority of the borough is considered in the top 50% most deprived areas in the country, with hotspots in Thames View, Dagenham and Becontree Heath
Indices of Multiple Deprivation in LB Barking & Dagenham

From Jennifer we heard about the stark health inequalities in LB Lewisham and how these were brought to the forefront by Covid. These are issues shared by north and south alike; as our chair, James MacGregor from Hatch, said “social inequality stalks all the cities in the UK”.

Focus on the positives

But is there a danger that Levelling Up will actually result in ‘talking down’ – with local authorities competing for last place to demonstrate the need for investment? The panel encouraged the public sector in particular to be positive about their area and look to build on assets. For example:

  • LB Lewisham has some incredible green spaces including the award-winning Beckenham Place Park, Ladywell Fields and Blackheath – all of which are potential tools to address inequalities in the borough.
  • LB Barking and Dagenham has huge investment potential and they are working with the film industry as well as the three London wholesale markets relocating to the borough (Smithfields, Billingsgate and New Spitalfields) to drive regeneration, job creation and growth.
  • Greater Manchester has a strong track record of data collection and analytical strength, which is an asset when it comes to making the case for new funding and initiatives in the city region.

From “what are we doing?” to “how are we doing it?”

John outlined a relatively recent change in thinking in the combined authority to focus on their approach and ways of working, as opposed to concentrating on outputs and actions. This was echoed by Abi who said LB Barking and Dagenham has also been rethinking about the way the council engages with residents.

Three panellists sit talking at the front of the room while the audience looks on

Rather than see Levelling Up as a battle between places, our panel all put forward some potential avenues for collaboration across sectors and regions which we hope our network can get some inspiration from.

Work nationally

All cities have a role to play in attracting global investment to the UK. We should seek opportunities to come together to create a joint case for support, drawing on the individual strengths of all our urban areas.

Work with national government

Greater Manchester have analysed the overlap between commitments from their own strategy and the Levelling Up Missions. The result indicates that their ambitions (which go beyond the work of the public sector) are very closely aligned with the Levelling Up agenda. Armed with this evidence when entering discussions with national government, it is easy to demonstrate that your organisation is an ally, already working towards the same goals.

Work with universities

LB Barking and Dagenham have been collaborating with Coventry University to look at how to attract and grow new employment sectors for the benefit of residents.

Work with other cities

Analysing the data on those affected by Covid, LB Lewisham realised their Black African and Caribbean residents had more in common with people in Birmingham, than with residents in neighbouring boroughs. They’re now collaborating on a health inequalities review – seeking common ground and shared solutions.

A diagram with two columns. One side shows Greater Manchester's commitments and the other shows the government's levelling up missions. There are lines between the columns to indicate where ambitions align
Slide from John Wrathmell’s presentation demonstrating links between the Levelling Up missions and GM’s existing commitments

Huge thanks to our fantastic panel, our chair James MacGregor and our partners at Hatch for bringing this event together.


Our next City Makers’ Forum will be in the autumn and if you have ideas for a topic, please get in touch with hannah@futureoflondon.org.uk.