Levelling up through local shops

I’ve spent some of this week at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester. We’ve produced a podcast with a number of colleagues talking about what we found and what we learned, so have a listen to that. The top line summary: we got lots of excellent engagement from MPs, Police & Crime Commissioners, councillors and other party members, and more than I can ever remember they recognised the role the convenience store sector is playing during the pandemic and in supporting communities whatever the challenges they are facing. The first thing I should do here is pass on the thanks we received on your behalf from many of the people who visited our stand.

The exam question for this conference was “what is levelling up?”. This has been a phrase used many times by the Prime Minister and other senior government figures, but what does it actually mean? I found some of the attempts to wordsmith the perfect tweet or soundbite explaining this a little painful, and I am worried that it will exist as a slogan more than a programme for action. If you can discern a theme, I would say levelling up is going to translate into more devolution of powers and budgets to city and regional mayors, so my bet is on commitments in the next Conservative manifesto to deliver this with eye-popping budgets (probably cumulative over five years) attached to them with money previously spent by central government and local councils coming under the authority of a higher profile mayor. If I’m right, that will prompt some interesting policy questions for us: who makes decisions on licensing, planning, regulatory enforcement and redevelopment, all of which impact shops’ day to day trading.

My interpretation of levelling up is about far more than re-organising democratic structures. I see the rhetoric and apparent consensus on spreading economic growth and civic pride much more evenly as a huge opportunity for local shops. Our reach into communities is unique among physical businesses, and I hope that levelling up is viewed through the lens of how we can promote equitable growth at a hyper-local level, closer to people’s lives than regions or even cities.

What makes someone – and this applies whether you’re in the Red Wall, Blue Wall, Green Belt or any other confected geographical segment – feel better about their lives and where they live? I would argue that the state of their local parade of shops and their access to goods and services, plus the social interaction that goes with it, is crucial. Attractive safe spaces locally, hosting well-invested businesses, will have as much and arguably more impact on your quality of life than major transport projects or a new shopping and leisure development in a city thirty miles away.

So to me levelling up is about how we support – through whatever administrative structure we choose and frankly I don’t care whether it’s a decision made by a mayor or a council leader – these places to become those community hubs and a positive part of resident’s daily lives. It’s not the government’s job to micro-manage every estate or village, but I think there is help they can give to businesses and there are some responsibilities the public sector could fulfil much better.

Firstly, what are the policies that help businesses to invest? The super deduction announced in the Spring budget was a very positive step forward, but I think on 27 October the Chancellor can be much more ambitious. Let’s extend the principle of rewarding investment so that every green investment, every investment made in a community location, and every investment related to crime prevention can be set against the business rates bill. And why not go further and pay for these investments through grants based on those made available during the pandemic?

Secondly, how do we create the conditions to help those businesses and those locations? Quite simply, make parades, estates, villages and high streets safer. Direct police resource to those locations, put money into better design and hardware, and commit to dealing with offenders who make these places less safe with effective penalties, whether that’s rehabilitation or jail time. There’s a really vibrant debate on developing places through transport, creating the right mix of services and footfall drivers, bringing housing into high streets … all really important things to discuss, but all secondary issues to the priority facing retailers, colleagues and crucially residents close to stores: crime and safety.

We think we have a really important role to play with leading politicians like Neil O’Brien and Michael Gove as they interpret levelling up into, hopefully, a coherent policy agenda. But for now, instead of all those painful tweets and radio interviews trying to define levelling up, how about …

Levelling up is giving incentives to businesses, and directly spending public money, to make the places where everyone lives better and safer. Everyone will feel prouder and happier about their local area as a result of levelling up policies.

This entry was posted by Chloe on Sat, 09/10/2021 - 11:39