Sarah Cox, head of planning in Carter Jonas’ Leeds office considers how the Levelling Up White Paper will impact planning and development in the north.

After a long wait and a substantial build-up, I had looked forward to the White Paper addressing the many uncertainties that have restrained local development. But reading through the 305-page tome raised more questions than it answered.

The first was its purpose. After all, it will be difficult to gauge the White Paper’s success without a clear understanding of its aims. It seems both a celebration of the Government’s successes to date, and also an admission of failure; it is on one hand retrospective, but it focuses on a 30-year vision; it heralds an immediately improved future but makes few short-term commitments; the word ‘local’ features 1,153 times and yet the solutions are of a regional nature. Perhaps most significantly, for the north is it seems to give with one hand while taking back with the other. 


For many in the north the potential to level up was contingent on the Birmingham to Leeds branch of HS2. And so its cancellation in November last year came as a bitter disappointment. We had hoped that the levelling up commitments would provide some compensation, ideally an investment in local transport infrastructure, but the White Paper is conspicuously silent on new funding of specific transport projects.

Instead the most important and - longer term - most constructive element of the White Paper in terms of regional infrastructure development is the strong commitment to devolution. Under the proposals, an investment of £120 million will be made available to metro mayors to deliver housing and high quality local public transport. Specifically, the White Paper promises that, by 2030, ‘every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement.

Sustainable local transport infrastructure is, in my view, the most appropriate way of encouraging long term growth and devolution is undoubtedly the best means of achieving this. That said, devolution comes in many varieties and ensuring the most appropriate package is imperative. 


The White Paper makes reference to the success of the London mayoral authority in delivering regeneration and promises that ‘By 2030, every part of England that wishes to have a “London-style” devolution deal will have one’. Having worked in both London and Yorkshire, I see that the relative success of the London mayor was to provide leadership, drive regeneration as the result of his strategic planning powers to accommodate growth, his ability to integrate transport and development, and derive income from business rates to fund regeneration-related projects for London. The Yorkshire mayor has so far lacked these integrated powers and therefore has lacked the potential to make a real difference. 

This opportunity would be strengthened further if devolved authorities were authorised to establish development corporations, providing the opportunity to drive investment to areas such as Scarborough (significantly, a net loser in terms of investment according to the figures within the White Paper) where an injection of resources could reverse the town’s fortunes.

Regeneration – ‘ambitious, King's Cross-style regeneration’ – is an important theme of the White Paper. The opportunity to study the various regeneration projects in London could benefit towns like Scarborough – providing that the very different circumstances of a world capital and a coastal town are taken into account. As the White Paper states, the Kings Cross regeneration scheme is an impressive case study, but the impetus for Kings Cross was the relocation of the Eurostar; it is unlikely that anything as seismic would spearhead regeneration in Scarborough. Similarly there is much to be gained from understanding the regenerational impact of the Olympic Park: specifically the ‘ripple’ effect which benefitted much of East London, contrasting sharply to the oasis of wealth created in the London Docklands thirty years earlier. 

Another significant benefit of devolution is the potential for regional housing targets. The fact that the UK has consistency failed to meet its 300,000 per annum housing target is testament to the near-impossibility of locally-set targets being met. Such targets over-politicise growth, fail to distribute development appropriately across the wider region and allow for local political interests and NIMBYism to thwart progress. Regional targets have proved successful in negating these issues while also enabling housing and infrastructure to be planned in tandem, leading to truly sustainable schemes which are appropriately located for employment and services. 


That said, the capital’s system is not without its flaws, and the additional layer of administration can cause delay and uncertainty, which ultimately impacts the ability to deliver housing. And as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has already demonstrated, the creation of a new dynamic, powerful body intended to drive positive change has had the inevitable impact of attracting staff from local authorities, potentially depleting already under-resourced planning teams. Furthermore it has not been supported by all, as demonstrated by Stockport Council’s withdrawal from the Greater Manchester Strategic Framework.

The most significant omission from the White Paper was local transport funding for new projects. The document refers to the creation of Great British Railways and proposals to connect cities. But to truly level up, an investment needs to be made in providing access to maligned towns and isolated villages.

Not only is the need greater in such areas, but an investment – which would be less expensive and would have a more immediate impact than pan-regional railway upgrades – would directly benefit residents’ quality of life. This would then restore faith in planning and development, lessening the delays necessary housing development. 

Similarly, while we welcome an investment in advanced manufacturing, a notable omission from the White Paper is funding for existing sectors such as care, hospitality and low-skilled manufacturing which, post-Brexit and post-Covid, are in desperate need of a boost.

My overall impression is that the Levelling Up White Paper has missed a trick by prioritising the long-term, visionary and regional over the immediate, necessary and local changes that could be delivered quickly to assist with delivering immediate change to people’s lives and employment opportunities. While the 30-year goals are admirable and necessary for large infrastructure developments, people need immediate change. Positive change reduces resistance to development and thus creates a spiral of success. My recommendation would be to prioritise local spending, in the knowledge that gaining support for planning proposals is best way of achieving large-scale change. 

Get in touch
Sarah Cox
Partner, Planning & Development
0113 203 1095 Email me About Sarah
Sarah is a skilled and experienced chartered town planner with over 20 years' experience. Sarah has experience in managing the planning process on residential, mixed-use, commercial and leisure developments in a variety of locations on behalf of a diverse client base including developers, investment funds, social housing provider landowners and public companies.

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