The Levelling Up White Paper Has Missed a Trick - Here's Why...

Nikki Webber deconstructs what the Levelling Up White Paper indicates for the future of planning & what it's lacking to make crucial change.
Nikki Webber

On 2nd February 2022 Michael Gove took to the Dispatch Box to unveil the government’s flagship Levelling Up White Paper (LUWP). The announcement was set to be full of promise, and to pave the way for delivery of one of Boris Johnson’s cornerstone manifesto pledges, however commentators from the Built Environment industry were left feeling a little flat. Nikki Webber, Strategy and Policy at VU.CITY, takes a look at what was announced, it’s importance to the built environment, and what this means for the digitisation agenda. 

Recap: What’s in the Levelling Up White Paper 

The 300 page document covered much ground, with the government focussing on 12 “missions”; the thing about missions is that they can fail, and they are also often underfunded.

These missions have a wide range of focusses, from improving digital connectivity to reduction in crime levels, education & skills training to raising the Health Life Expectancy. 

Perhaps most poignantly for the Built Environment sector three of these “missions” focus on pride in place and sense of community, home ownership and decent homes standards, and devolution deals. The devil, as ever, is in the detail, and the nitty gritty offers regeneration and funding for 20 places up to 2030, with Sheffield and Wolverhampton set to benefit first, 68 Local Authorities to receive support from the High Street Task Force, as well as R&D investment outside the Greater South East (with three pilot innovation accelerators promised for Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Glasgow city).

Unsurprisingly commentators from across the industry have been left asking the question, will it be enough? Many seem to think not - see links to industry responses at the end of this piece.

What This Could Mean for Planning Reforms

The White Paper lacks Gove’s trademark radicalism, which will only lead to speculation about quite how watered down any planning reforms might be. The highly anticipated Planning Bill wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the White Paper, but it did offer some clues as to what we might be able to expect. 

Notably it made references to new local design codes, and widening accessibility of neighbourhood planning, an intention which was supported by the governments’ recently awarded funding for planning pilots for urban and deprived areas, with many of the successful authorities aiming to simplify the process. 

Citizen engagement looks likely to be a focus, as is digitisation, with the White Paper stating that “the ability to have a meaningful say on individual planning applications will be retained and improved with the use of digital technologies”. DLUHC’s PropTech Engagement Fund is a clear indication of this, with pilot projects currently being run (including in Watford and Dacorum, where VU.CITY are supporting the local authorities with visual tools for stronger engagement), and second round applications having just closed.

So, What Next? 

The heavy focus on regeneration, brownfield sites, compulsory purchase powers, and “pride in place” within the White Paper points a laser focus on our cities, and how they can deliver for both the housing, and the climate crisis. This will not be without it’s complications; dense urban environments are complex and sensitive, and require skill to design in, with recognition for good design and sympathy to context. Visualisation tools will be essential in delivering this efficiently, in order to have any chance of meeting the government’s ambitious target of delivering 300,000 homes a year by the mid 2020s. 

The focus on shorter and more simple local plans is welcome, and will be critical in driving the citizen engagement this government purports to be so passionate about. Ease of understanding will require good explanation, and visual aids rather than hundreds of pages of complex and dense policy documentation. 

The ever remaining - and significant - elephant in the room is when will we see the publication of the long awaited Planning Bill, which seemingly will be instrumental to the success of delivering many of the proposals within the Levelling Up White Paper. Until it’s publication, it cannot be omitted from any “what happens next” commentary.

Don't Forget About Tech

Although the announcement of the White Paper was welcome, it left many in the industry feeling deflated and disappointed. There are still many unanswered questions, scepticism as to whether the White Paper goes far enough, and how many of the missions will be achieved in practice, and the Built Environment is still crying out for clarification on the long awaited Planning Bill. 

We can take one comfort in that the government seems to be forward thinking in recognising the integral role that digital tools will continue to play in delivering innovative solutions to the housing crisis. Citizen engagement and an understanding of our evolving cities will clearly continue to be critical in their agenda. However, if the government is taking Levelling Up seriously, we expected to see more of a focus on the advantages tech can offer. Technology that allows complex policy to be more easily understood, or decisions to be made more efficiently and rely on fewer resources, inherently will help level the playing field and support the “Levelling Up” agenda.

The Planning Bill, when it is published, should continue to place an emphasis on the positive things that digitisation and visualisation has to offer. There is a real opportunity here to make a long lasting difference to the planning system, making it more accessible, easier to understand and more efficient. Let’s hope that the government recognises this, and pushes for long lasting and effective adoption that can benefit us all. 

Links to further industry responses:

Savills reaction from David Jackson and others

Centre for Cities response

Briefings for Britain response

The Economist’s article response