Lord Mawson’s speech in the House of Lords on 17th May 2021 in response to the Queens Speech:
“My Lords, my colleagues and I have spent the last 14 months operating at the sharp end in challenging communities across the country. We can see in detail what is happening outside the Chamber. We have been taking the principles and learning from the last 36 years of practical work in challenging communities in east London, and in the Olympic Park, into challenging communities initially in the north of England, and now nationally, through the Well North programme. With local people and public and business sector partners, we have created innovation platforms in towns and cities across the country, which focus on practice at the front edge of the issues that this Queen’s Speech addresses. I declare my interests.
I welcome the focus in the Queen’s Speech on levelling up in health, innovation, skills and infrastructure, and the attempt to bring together funding streams and create a more integrated approach. This is the right direction of travel. However, some of us have been here before and the proof of the pudding will be in the detail and implementation. The UK has not always had a good track record of translating Bills into effective, transformational programmes. My colleagues and I have the grey hairs to prove it. We have tried before to bend other funding schemes developed by our Civil Service, which has often failed to grasp the practical realities at the front end.
Looking at the levelling-up fund and more broadly, I ask the Minister the following questions, in a spirit of willingness to help him and his colleagues learn from real, practical experience on the ground, gained over many years. First, are the Government going to be a learning organisation? Have they looked at what has worked well and what has not in previous regeneration programmes? Can the Minister share the insights that his department has learned from its experience of running previous programmes, when putting together the levelling-up fund and other build back better programmes? We all now need to get very interested in practitioners, not talkers and commentators.
Secondly, is there sufficient focus on joining the dots in the integration of funding streams and services, and bringing together other partners, for example from health, education, and the private and social sectors? Are we willing to learn from best practice in the place-making space? My colleagues and I are working with some of the largest businesses in the country, and the public sector, in precisely this space. We are happy to share our practical learning and point to the blockages that are preventing real change in some of our most challenged communities.
Thirdly, is there sufficient focus on change and innovation, and entrepreneurial approaches to transformation, in projects that deliver quality and excellence in our most challenged communities? Many Civil Service processes, we have noticed over the years, are great at putting old men in new clothes. Little changes: real learning and transformation rarely happen. Our inner cities are littered with previous short-term three-year government and lottery-funded programmes that came to very little because they were not built on and did not take the long view. Does government understand that pumping money into some situations can drive perverse decision-making? Are this Government serious about moving beyond business as usual? It is a sign of madness to repeat the same processes and expect different results.
Fourthly, as the taps are turned on and money is spent, is government going to be interested in the people question this time? Will we be looking at the leaders, backers and bidders and their practical track records? Will we learn from the best? Will we be concerned about the individuals who will be responsible for these programmes and plans—not just process, strategy and plan? The modern entrepreneurial world is all about people and relationships before structures; does our Civil Service understand this? Can we learn from the UK’s Covid vaccine programme—the best in the world, because key people with key skills and experience were empowered to get on with it? How can we learn that lesson?
I ask the Minister to consider all of these points when considering the large shared prosperity fund, which will replace the EU structural funds. Could he ensure that the voluntary and social enterprise sectors are not precluded from being invited to bid for these large-scale government programmes, as well as public bodies? In some parts of the country, the Government might want to ask themselves: are the public sector and local government actually up to the task? Do they have the necessary skills and insights to do transformation—or are the limitations of local government and the public sector, and the calibre of their people and their limited insights and skills, actually preventing transformation and the development of a more entrepreneurial culture?
There is a lot to play for. My colleagues and I want to support this Government at this important time, but the devil in the detail really matters.”