Examination of Witness

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:10 am on 21st June 2022.

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Mairi Spowage gave evidence.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 10:47 am, 21st June 2022

Hello and good morning. We now come to oral evidence from the director of the Fraser of Allander Institute. Would you like to introduce yourself for the record?

Mairi Spowage:

I am Professor Mairi Spowage and I am the director of the Fraser of Allander Institute, which is in the economics department at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. For those of you who are not familiar with the institute, we are an economic research institute which in the past focused very much on the Scottish economy, but over the past decade or so has moved more across the UK, particularly focusing on regional economic policy, the measurement of economic outcomes and wider societal outcomes at devolved and regional levels.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you and welcome, Professor Spowage. The Public Accounts Committee has expressed concerns that the allocation of levelling-up funds could be at risk of being mired in the same kind of controversy and difficulties as the towns fund. Nobody wants to see that happen. What measures do you think would help to ensure that the allocation of any levelling-up funding is fully transparent and can be accounted for?

Mairi Spowage:

We did quite a lot of work last year through the first iteration of the levelling-up fund on the sorts of metrics that were used to determine the highest priority areas. The UK Government made it clear in their criteria for which projects would be funded that that was not be the only thing that would be taken into account and that there were other issues they would look at around the strategic fit. In particular, in the first round there were a lot of criteria about how quickly certain pots of money could be spent. For community renewal, it had to be spent by March 2022; for levelling up, it was over a number of years. There were quite strict criteria that would be applied. In addition, there was the requirement that projects or packages of projects also be supported by local MPs.

I am most familiar with the Scottish projects, but the series of projects across the UK that were funded were not necessarily in the areas that were identified as highest priority using the metrics that had been set out. I suppose it is for the UK Government to say why that is the case and why the particular projects were funded, as I am not familiar with all the projects that did not get funded, for example.

It will be very important throughout this process and in the future, and for the shared prosperity fund as well, to set out clearly why the projects being funded are likely to achieve the outcomes set out in the levelling-up White Paper and broader outcomes around the funds. That will ensure these investments actually lead to the sorts of changes that the UK Government desires. They should then set out why a project will move the metrics they have chosen to measure the success of the fund. It will be very important to have clarity on why the packages of projects that are being funded will actually help achieve the outcomes.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q What might the impact be on the entire levelling-up agenda? The Government have not used indices of multiple deprivation to assess need when distributing levelling-up funding.

Mairi Spowage:

It is a really good question. There has been a challenge around indices of multiple deprivation for many years. In general, they are used within the devolved nations to distribute funds, whether looking at how different things are invested in in health or education or what targets are set for universities. They are generally used in the devolved nations.

The issue with the indices of multiple deprivation is that they are not comparable across nations. While they rank areas within each of the nations, they do not say anything about how a particular output area or data zone in Scotland compares to one in England, both because they are just relative ranks within a country and because different metrics are used and different methodologies are adopted.

We said in one of the papers we published last year that perhaps a body like the Office for National Statistics might wish to consider how we can say something sensible about relative need on multiple dimensions of deprivation right across the UK. Given the ambitions of the UK Government, their levelling-up agenda and the way they are choosing to fund that as a replacement for EU funding, there is a clear policy need for that sort of tool now. It is very difficult for the UK Government to use the current indices of multiple deprivation across the UK, because you cannot compare between nations.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q To pursue that point, we know that the UK Government want the devolved Parliaments to be involved at the implementation stage rather than decision-making stage, as happened with the EU funding. What do you think the impact of not involving the devolved Parliaments at the decision-making stage is on the efficient use of resources and strategic overview?

Mairi Spowage:

There is a danger, depending on the sorts of the projects that are funded through the levelling-up and shared prosperity funds, that in devolved areas UK Government aims for what these projects might achieve will come into conflict with the aims of the devolved Government. It would make sense for the UK Government to engage with the devolved Governments, and indeed regional governments in England through combined and mayoral authorities, at the point at which they are making decisions.

It is made clear in the criteria around the shared prosperity fund that the local plans to be set out by areas across the country need to be cognisant of local strategies such as the national strategy for economic transformation in Scotland. They do set that out in the criteria for what the plans are going to fund, but I always think it makes sense for collaboration between different layers of government to ensure that the projects funded do not come into conflict with any ambitions that the Welsh Government, Scottish Government or the Northern Ireland Executive—when it can form—have for economic development in their nation, particularly when talking about spending in devolved areas.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Do you think it would be helpful or desirable for an independent body to oversee and assess the UK Government’s progress on levelling up?

Mairi Spowage:

Through the Bill, my understanding is that the UK Government have to publish regular updates on the progress that they are making towards the missions that it sets out and the metrics chosen to measure success. There is quite a lot of work to do to ensure that those metrics cover the whole of the UK on all the different missions. There is a significant amount of investment—I believe that the ONS is looking to try to do that better, but it is not for me to say whether an independent body should be set up to monitor what is, after all, a UK Government policy agenda that they can legitimately pursue.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Professor Spowage, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us this morning. The Bill creates statutory requirements around the levelling ambitions that we were just discussing. One of those is on digital connectivity. Through Project Gigabit and the shared rural network, Scotland is likely to see particularly large increases in connectivity. How do we best drive growth, particularly in more rural parts of Scotland? How do we best measure progress in the roll-out of connectivity? Do you agree that the rise of online working is, potentially, a strong tailwind for the rural Scottish economyQ ?

Mairi Spowage:

Yes, if and when digital connectivity is of sufficient quality it will present a lot of opportunities for the rural economy. We still hear in parts of Scotland that it is a barrier to remote working. It would be hugely transformative for lots of areas, particularly of rural Scotland, but I am sure that lots of other rural parts of the UK would say the same. It would be transformative in terms of the connectivity of people working from home, perhaps for businesses in population centres but also for businesses that are operating in these areas, to have a more reliable connection. It could be extremely transformative to those areas.

We have heard from some of our work with businesses that to a certain extent it can also work the other way. Businesses based in remote and rural Scotland are employing people in the big population centres, but sometimes having to pay them more money because they are more likely to command higher wages in those areas, particularly in this very tight labour market that we have at the moment.

Improvements in digital connectivity present huge opportunities for rural Scotland. As much as there is quite a lot of focus on transport connectivity through the levelling-up funds, investment UK-wide—particularly in rural areas—in digital connectivity is one of the areas where we could get the biggest bang for our buck in transforming the economy and reducing regional inequality, particularly when we look at the population outlook if current trends continue in rural areas.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

ThankQ you. One of the other missions for which the Bill is creating statutory requirements is to increase domestic public R&D investment outside greater south-east England by a third over this spending review period. Alongside that, there has been the creation of an innovation accelerator centred on the Glasgow city region. How can we best harness the large public investment in research and development to drive growth right across Scotland?

Mairi Spowage:

That is a great question, and one that policy makers in Scotland have been grappling with for a long time, particularly given the quality of our universities in Scotland and their international prowess in research and development. We seem to have an issue between the development of the ideas, the start-up, and the translation of that into commercial opportunities that can be scaled up into medium-sized businesses. In Scotland, we often find those opportunities are lost, particularly to the south-east of England, because the infrastructure is there to scale up that business to the next step. I think the sorts of investments that you are talking about, not just in Glasgow but in other locations in Scotland, will be really important. We have to think about how we take all of the great advances that have been made in academia in Scotland and turn them into commercial opportunities, have them scale up and feel that there is the infrastructure and capacity in Scotland so that they do not have to move or be bought by companies outwith Scotland.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q That is very helpful. In your earlier answer you drew attention to the lack of UK-wide indices of multiple deprivation. We know that in the first round of the levelling-up fund, the 50% of local authorities that had the lowest median pay got roughly three quarters of the investments—it is targeting poorer areas. Would it be attractive, as part of the data drive in the levelling-up White Paper, to create more UK-wide indices of deprivation and other things?

Mairi Spowage:

Yes, I would be very supportive of that. We can see in the sorts of metrics that are used—not only those related to indices of multiple deprivation but educational outcomes or transport connectivity—that some of them are focused on England-only measures; sometimes they are GB only. We do not want to fall into the trap of, in some cases, using GB and UK inter-changeably here. It is really important that we think about the metrics that we are going to use to capture the reduction in regional inequalities across the UK. Wherever possible, we should invest in developing UK-wide measures.

In some cases I can see that there are data sources in the devolved nations that are very similar to those being used for England. I think there is work that could be done to develop more consistent measures right across the UK, for which, as I said earlier, there is a clear policy need for the UK Government’s programme.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you for your time this morning, Professor. Can you expand on an element of a previous answer you gave about the work that the Office for National Statistics, of which you are a fellow, is doing on developing a dataset in that area?

Mairi Spowage:

I am not here to speak for the ONS, but I am a fellow, so they ask me and a group of other expert academics for advice on their work programme. They have published a subnational data strategy, which was worked up not just by the ONS but across the Government’s fiscal service, to think about how we can develop more sophisticated metrics across the UK to capture different levels of needs and progress. That would be to support not only the levelling-up agenda but things more broadly. In partnership with the Department for Levelling Up, the ONS is looking to develop more metrics across the UK. Some of that will be working closely with the devolved Administrations to develop data sources and think what might be comparable.

We have done a significant amount of work with the Economics Statistics Centre of Excellence. We published a paper recently on developing a suite of sub-national indicators across the UK. We made recommendations there, which included working closely with the devolved Administrations to develop data that was consistent across the UK, particularly on educational and environmental outcomes. A recent example would be something like fuel poverty, which is obviously a live discussion. It is measured differently in all four nations of the UK, so it is very hard to compare differential rates of fuel poverty in different parts of the UK at the moment.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Do you feel that the outcome of that work might be a definitive set of statistics and measurements that we could use in this space, that we could perhaps seek to build consensus around? Is this particularly contested space in your community? It is in ours, as you may have noticed.

Mairi Spowage:

It is always difficult to come up with a set of metrics that everybody is going to agree with. One of the most challenging things, particularly if you compile them in an index, is how you weight them together, which things you give most prominence to, because if you are weighting metrics that are more focused on, perhaps, income deprivation and you are focusing less on rurality, you will get quite a different allocation of resources from the one that you will get if you are giving more weight to lack of connectivity, or rurality, than income deprivation. That is just one example. Most of the indices of multiple deprivation have income and employment, education, health, crime, and access to services, as well as housing. The weights that you give to these things can be contentious and, depending on the weight that you give to things, there can be quite a different outcome in your allocation.

It is obviously possible to come up with a consensus on things like the indices of multiple deprivation. The different nations show that you can come up with something that broadly everybody agrees is sensible, but even with the indices of multiple deprivation, which are well established, policy makers in rural areas would say that they do not capture rural disadvantage very well at all, because the geographic areas that tend to be used for rural areas are very large and do not capture pockets of deprivation within rural areas. Even with those established metrics, people in rural areas have argued for many years that they do not serve them well. I think it is difficult to get a consensus, but there is a good basis to start from, in terms of the long-established 20 or 30-year discussions about indices of multiple deprivation and how to measure that across the UK.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q That is a very handy caution for us with regard to using these statistics for allocation purposes. When it comes to measuring progress, would it be a little easier if we were not seeking to aggregate and to weight them but instead to use them as some sort of dashboard such that we would be able to form some sort of consensus on what indicators would show whether we were levelling up across the UK? Would we be able to reach a kind of breadth there, certainly in your community?

Mairi Spowage:

Yes, I think that is possible. In terms of the sorts of metrics that we could use, it will be important that the metrics used capture the outcomes of what we are trying to achieve and not just inputs or outputs, but I do think it will be possible, and I agree with you that it makes much more sense, when we are thinking about whether the interventions that we are pursuing are making progress on the outcomes that we are interested in, to look at those as a suite or a dashboard of indicators, rather than trying to come up with some index overall. Yes, absolutely, it should be possible to come up with a suite of indicators that are broadly agreed upon. However, there are things like the Scottish national performance framework, trying to measure the 11 national outcomes that the Scottish Government have set out through consultation with Scottish public life and communities about what is important. Just be aware: 81 indicators are used to capture that, and having 81 indicators makes it quite difficult to say overall whether we feel we are progressing to the sort of Scotland that we want to see. It can be difficult to come up with something that is comprehensive enough and that does not become unwieldy.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Hi, Professor; good to see you with us. You mentioned earlier the situation regarding a tight labour market. Thinking about rural communities in Scotland and England in particular and elsewhere in the UK, to what extent you think an absence or a lack of workforce is hampering those economies. In the Lake district, 63% of hospitality businesses last year reported that they were working below capacity, because of the lack of workforce. To what extent do you think that workforce problems—or lack of workforce—are hampering economic growth in certain areas? What is the cause? Does the Bill do anything to solve those problems?

Mairi Spowage:

It is a massive problem. For all the businesses we talk to on a regular basis right now, it is their No. 1 issue. They are very concerned about their energy, fuel and input costs going up hugely, but their biggest problem is sourcing staff, particularly businesses in rural areas. It means that they do not open as much in many cases, particularly when we talk to hospitality businesses—they are not serving non-residents for dinner, or they are not opening on all days of the week. That seems to be quite common across the Scottish businesses we talk to on a regular basis, so it is an absolutely huge problem.

What is causing it? Well, for many years, there has been a movement—within Scotland at least, which I am more familiar with—from rural to more urban areas. In Scotland, there has been movement from most areas to Edinburgh and its surrounds, to be honest. That is projected to continue. If it does, that has some pretty huge consequences for rural areas. Obviously, housing plays into it as well, with young people in an area being attracted away, perhaps to study, but also for employment, and not being able to afford to buy houses in the local area. Certain parts, particularly the highlands, have huge issues with second-home ownership dominating particular settlements.

Those are all issues. With some of the pressure valves that we used to use a lot in rural areas in Scotland around EU labour, it is not quite the same situation any more, so we are not seeing the same supply of labour from that sort of source that we did in the past. That definitely seems to be causing issues, particularly in hospitality and social care.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q What might the Government do in the levelling-up Bill to help that situation? You talked in particular about the impact on rural communities—what might make it more affordable or attractive for people of all ages in the working-age population either to move to or to remain in rural communities?

Mairi Spowage:

I suppose some of things we have talked about—improved digital connectivity, improving transport connectivity—are likely to make some areas seem more accessible than they were before, particularly when that might connect people to employment centres. Investing in connectivity, both digital and transport infrastructure, is likely to improve the situation for rural areas. However, we also have an issue with labour supply, and the outlook for population overall for areas like Scotland is not good in the aggregate, as well as having to think about the issues of digital and transport connectivity.

Mairi Spowage:

It is difficult, because we have had a very strange couple of years, and the data tend to be very lagged at the sub-UK level for us when understanding what the impacts might be on regional growth. The leading indicators we have, on payroll employment, wages and things like that, suggest that lots of areas of Scotland seem to be lagging behind other areas of the UK, but some of that is in relation to the oil and gas industry in the north-east, which right now is the poorest area of the UK in wage growth, since pre-pandemic. There are interesting things going on in the north-east, because of the oil and gas industry. The highlands and islands of Scotland also seem to be lagging behind a bit in wage growth and payroll employment growth. So, not yet, I think, is the answer. This is one of the challenges with sub-UK statistics, which I hope that any investment in statistics might deal with—we have to wait so long to find out what is happening in economies across the UK.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Any further questions, colleagues? No. Professor Spowage, I thank you for your evidence. It is much appreciated. Thank you for giving us your time and expertise today.

That brings to a conclusion our morning sitting.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Miss Dines.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.