Hansard Contributions By Lord Mawson (CB) On Monday 18 September 2023
Lord Mawson (CB)
282A: After Clause 226, insert the following new Clause—
“Departmental implementation review and learning network(1) As soon as reasonably practicable after this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must instruct the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to undertake a review on how best to implement it.(2) The review must include a short exercise to draw together experience from across government departments of what has and has not worked with regard to successful competitive programmes that have specifically promoted joined-up working and innovation.(3) The review must, in particular, consider what mechanisms were and were not in place to take the learning from these programmes to inform future programme design by central and regional government.(4) The review must also evaluate the most straightforward processes to use in implementing this Act, using the methodology that every question to bidders has an opportunity cost.(5) The review must involve input from experienced practitioners from outside government in the design of the programme of implementation, the assessment of applications, including meeting the leaders of shortlisted proposed projects as well as assessing written proposals.(6) Following the review, the Secretary of State must—(a) establish a learning network for those delivering projects and other stakeholders, and(b) take steps to secure that government departments are taking part and learning lessons at all levels,in respect of the implementation of this Act.”
My Lords, I put these two amendments, Amendments 282A and 282B, down at Report because we were unable to debate them during Committee because of the timing of the debates. To save time, I have shared with the Minister and my sponsors the detailed speech I had prepared for Committee, with its reference to real projects my colleagues and I are working on and the disconnects we are experiencing in the machinery of the state as we seek to focus on delivering what the Government call levelling up—and I declare my interests. These imperfect amendments were put down simply to encourage a discussion with the Government about implementation and the delivery of their levelling-up agenda; they are not seeking to make a party-political point but to share practical experience on the ground.
My colleagues and I have been working at the front edge inside the machinery of the state for 40 years. Our work began in a failing East End housing estate and is now expanding nationally. We are today operating in some of our most challenging communities across the country. We are sighted in granular detail on what is and is not happening on the ground, below all the processes and paperwork, and on the ability of the public sector to deliver whatever we mean by the levelling-up agenda. The machinery of the state is in considerable difficulty. It is a fact that any Government coming into power will have to grapple with: the inability of this public sector machinery to deliver in detail and in practice the democratic wishes of the people of this country. This is a serious matter.
This is not just true regarding the levelling-up agenda. We have listened in recent debates in your Lordships’ House to speeches about this broken machinery when it comes to defence. I point noble Lords to the excellent speech on the challenges of defence procurement made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, before the recess. In recent months, we have also listened to debates on the broken machinery in the justice system, the police, the health service, et cetera. There is a serious problem here; we ignore it at our peril.
My two amendments, which were presented in Committee but not debated and which I have now put down at Report, are simply an attempt to encourage a discussion with this Government about the need, as in Amendment 282A, to stimulate innovation and a deeper working relationship between the public, business and social sectors. No sector can deliver levelling up on its own in the modern world. Those of us who are involved in the practice understand this in great detail.
In my second amendment, Amendment 282B, I encourage the development of what my colleagues and I call a “learning by doing culture”. It brings together the public, business and social sectors so that they learn from best practice. It is a culture that encourages the micro and the macro to learn from each other; the micro and the macro need to learn to dance together.
I was rather disappointed, therefore, when I asked the Minister for a response to my speech in Committee, which I shared with her but had no opportunity to give in this Chamber. Her response, if I understood it correctly, was implicitly that local authorities and the public sector have got it all covered. I do not believe that for a minute. I suggest that, if she and her colleagues take a closer look under the carpet in some of our northern communities that are spending levelling-up money, they might find that what is being promised in bids and what is being delivered in practice—if it is delivered at all—are two quite different things. Throwing money at challenging northern communities will not solve the endemic problems that they face or the dependency cultures that have often been created by the state.
I thank the Minister for her reply to my Committee-stage speech, which there is no time now to respond to in detail at this late stage at Report. In her letter dated 27 July, the Minister stated that delivery is about having the right structures and expertise. My colleagues and I often say, “It is actually all about people, not structures”. By relying primarily on the same local public sector leadership, which has not succeeded in transforming their communities in the past, they are not likely to succeed in future without the injection of additional leadership from other sectors. Surely the lessons of previous regeneration initiatives show that this approach has not worked in the past and is therefore likely not to work in future either.
However, if I understand the Minister correctly, her Government are relying primarily on local authorities and other public sector organisations to lead and deliver on the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Our experience over the past 40 years is that, especially in towns across the north of England that are struggling, as well as in seaside towns, a key part of the problem is a lack of skills, capacity and ambition in the relevant local authorities. The Government’s approach seems to suggest that people can simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The lessons that we learned in the 19 years that I worked on the Olympic legacy in east London suggest otherwise.
To be precise, I worked on that project from day one in 1999 until 2018. I was a director of both the Olympic Park Legacy Company and its successor body, the London Legacy Development Corporation. I chaired the regeneration and community partnerships committees on both bodies for many years and helped to write the structure for the Olympic legacy company for Hazel Blears, the then Minister in the Blair years with responsibility for the legacy programme. At that time, a Labour Government accepted that the legacy could not be relied on to be delivered by a collection of local authorities; instead, an SPV with a board with a wealth of world-leading expertise was established, bringing together the public, business and social sectors.
The extraordinary success of that approach is hard to challenge, yet it is not a model that has been adopted more broadly in challenging communities in the north. We wonder why. The success of many London secondary schools has been achieved via the academy approach and then the free school approach. Although not all of these have fully lived up to their promise, they are examples of the need to look beyond local authority control—that is, to look under the carpet and see what is really there, underneath what local authorities think government wants to hear.
Again, this has been a broadly non-party-political approach, which successfully brought in private sector leadership, skills, money and ambition. The previous local authority-led approach severely damaged the prospects for millions of Londoners over previous decades but, based on the Minister’s letter, which I will place it in the Library, I wonder whether, if this approach had not already been introduced, this Government would have done so. I worry that this Government would have stuck with the failing status quo. So I find myself scratching my head and wondering why the current Government are so reliant solely on the public sector to lead, rather than a more mixed economy approach where you celebrate differences, build working relationships across sectors and learn from what emerges and what works. As Einstein famously said, it is a sign of madness to continue repeating the same approach and expecting to see a change in outcome.
I do not intend to push these two amendments to a vote. The purpose of them is simply to encourage a debate with this Government and in this Chamber about implementation and what has been shown to work in practice. I worry that few lessons have been learned. As far as I can see from these successful projects, there is little awareness in any real detail in this Government of what is happening on the ground in some of our most challenged northern communities, which are in practice experiencing little of what the Government call levelling up. My colleagues and I will continue to deliver projects on the ground. We will work with any Government who are serious about levelling up, but business as usual will not get us there. Innovation, a closer working partnership with the business community and social sectors, and the creation of a practical “learning by doing” culture will be essential in the modern world. These two simple amendments seek to find a way to encourage this step change.
My door remains open but, for now, I remain disappointed at the lack of curiosity and interest in the detail that lies under all the paperwork and in proven best practice. I beg to move.
Baroness Harding of Winscombe (Con)
My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mawson. I will reiterate two points very quickly, recognising the lateness of the hour.
The first point is that implementation is not the boring, straightforward part after the smart policy people have done their work. Too often in government, that is how it is viewed. Implementation is really hard. My world of digital has taught us that thinking of implementation as something that comes after is the wrong way to do it; instead, you should think of things as entirely iterative. In an agile way, you should continually be testing and learning in a cross-disciplinary, user-focused way. That is what the digital world does every day, but it is also what brilliant regeneration work does every day.
I hugely support the principles of these amendments, partly because of that first point and partly because I have also seen—in both the NHS and the Covid response—that it is only when we have all sectors of society working together on implementation that we get real change. We need the public, commercial, private and third sectors working collaboratively on the ground. The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, has been doing this for 30 years in Bromley-by-Bow, but we saw it on the ground across the whole country in our much-vaunted vaccination programme. What was truly brilliant about it was the genuine local, cross-societal engagement in reaching the people who were most vulnerable and most in need of getting those first jabs. That was implementation at its very best.
I have a simple question for my noble friend the Minister: if the Government will not accept these amendments, can she assure us that they really do appreciate how important implementation is? Also, if they do, how will she ensure that the good ideas in this Bill are not just passed on to someone else—that is, for someone else to think about how to do them—but are continually iterated so that we learn how they can best be implemented?
Lord Lansley (Con)
My Lords, I thoroughly agree with my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe about this. But this is not a fire-and-forget piece of legislation; in the levelling-up part, it has its own metrics. The metrics are all there in the White Paper.
I want to add two requests. The first is that this is not good enough: we are two general elections away from 2030, when it is intended that these metrics are reported. That is too far away. We need a sense of what is being done, how it is being achieved and the progress being made.
Secondly, we have talked a number of times about the advisory council on levelling up. We now know that it has a work plan and some of the subjects that it will address. Some will be very useful—for example, understanding precisely what the Government’s intentions are for investment zones would be useful to people in many parts of the country.
In place of Andy Haldane giving interviews in which he says, “It’s all a mixed bag”, we actually want some of these subjects to be reported by the advisory council, transparently and openly. It is important that Ministers engage with the advisory councils, but they should not be purely internal. As the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, rightly said, they should enable those charged with levelling up across the country to see what the Government are doing, why they are doing it and what progress is being achieved. I hope that my noble friend will say more about the transparency of the advisory council.
Lord Rooker (Lab)
My Lords, if nobody is getting up, I will just let the Minister and my Front Bench know that I agree with the content of all three speeches I have just listened to. My message to the Front Bench is that things have to be done differently. The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, did not just invent this system; it has virtually been his life’s work and it has been a success. It is not like the good old days and the bad old days; we have to learn lessons and do things differently. The present arrangements have not worked.
In the last Labour Government we made mistakes, but we are in a different world now, by and large. There is going to be a general election, when there may or may not be a change of Government, but there ought to be a change in policy about the way that these issues are dealt with. They cannot all be one size fits all, which is the apparent view of the present Government, whether of the public or the private sector. Partnership, good leadership and a willingness to share responsibilities is the only way to success.
Baroness Taylor of Stevenage (Lab)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, and his fellow signatories to the amendments in this group. As we have heard, they refer to very important issues relating to how such a complex and far-reaching Bill should be implemented.
There was much discussion earlier about the wasteful and partial way in which the levelling-up fund was implemented so that, instead of making a real contribution to levelling up, it became a beauty contest of who could spend the most on consultants to put their bids together. There is no better example of the rationale for close and careful consideration of how the Bill will work in practice. I hope the Government will pay close attention to the wording of these carefully considered amendments, to how they will ensure cross-departmental working—which is not a feature of this Government nor of past Governments—and to the committed devolution of powers and funding, which will be necessary to deliver any meaningful levelling up. But I fear that this might have to wait for the Labour Party’s “take back control” Bill.
Baroness Swinburne (Con)
My Lords, Amendments 282A and 282B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, raise the important matter of ensuring that the right approach is taken in giving effect to the changes that would be made by the Bill. I understand that he was unable to move his amendments in Committee, as he had intended, and my noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook is grateful for the engagement that she had with him on them.
The implementation of the Bill will be a long-term endeavour. That is the case for the levelling-up missions and, equally, for the wider reform measures in the Bill. Noble Lords will be unsurprised that preparation and planning for implementation is already under way. As my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe just said, we agree that implementation is iterative. We are already working with local authorities, developers and other local partners to understand how the proposed changes will affect them. This approach of engaging with the sector will continue during all phases of implementation. It is intended to achieve a system that builds on the experience of all parties in implementation to achieve our objectives most effectively, while ensuring that local authorities are supported throughout implementation and beyond. All this will include monitoring and evaluation in a manner designed for the specifics of each policy.
Specifically on our levelling-up missions, the noble Lord is right that partnerships across central and local government, the private sector and civil society will be crucial. The levelling up White Paper was clear on that point and that emphasis will remain.
As a final word, the Government believe that the combination of the planned approach to implementation, which I have set out, the enduring annual reporting under Part 1 and the post-legislative scrutiny process are the right means to ensure that your Lordships’ House and the other place can scrutinise and ensure that lessons will be learned from the implementation of this Bill.
With respect to the advisory council and transparency requirements, I will revert to my noble friend Lord Lansley in writing, when I have spoken to the team.
Although I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, does not intend to test the opinion of your Lordships’ House, I hope he understands why the Government are unable to support his amendments, but are committed to following through this joined-up approach.
Lord Mawson (CB)
My Lords, I thank all those who have taken part in this debate and who have engaged with me as I put together these two amendments. I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, who was planning to speak in this debate but the change of date last week of the last day of Report prevented this. We would have benefited a great deal this evening from his vast experience in this area. I also thank the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett, Lord Scriven and Lord Young, who have engaged with me and supported my amendments.
I thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and wish her a speedy recovery. I thank her for her responses and her resilience, having watched her over the months, in dealing with so many amendments in a challenging Bill. We are nearly there but I think that, when she is back, some of us should take the Front-Bench team out for a drink and buy them a whisky—they deserve it.
These two amendments are not perfect, but they are an attempt to encourage this House, as part of the levelling-up process, to have a serious cross-party debate about the implementation of the Bill and the fitness for purpose of the machinery of the state. The issues facing this machinery are not new and they are not the fault of this Government. This out-of-date siloed machinery has been evolving and becoming less fit for purpose over several decades, and possibly longer. We have all heard the present state of play in recent debates in this Chamber, as I have said, not just about levelling up and regeneration but about the future of the NHS, the police, the justice system and so on.
These systems are increasingly not working and are producing unhealthy cultures which are not fit for purpose. Tinkering with these systems at the edges and doing yet more research is not going to solve the problem.
My two small amendments, Amendments 282A and 282B, will not change the world, but they are an attempt to recognise that, in the modern world, if you are to deliver real change and transformation on the ground in some of England’s most challenging communities, you cannot do that without a strong, healthy partnership on the front line, built on trust between the public, business and social sectors, and of course local communities. The future is all about integration and collaboration, not last-century theoretical debates about public versus private sector. The modern world that our children now live in learns by doing and practice, not through expensive research documents, written at 60,000 feet, that few read.
This is why my colleagues and I, with our national business and public sector partners, and with the NHS and a number of local authorities, are starting to generate a practical response on the ground in challenging circumstances. Together, in some of our most challenged communities, we are starting to create what we call innovation platforms, focused on place, which bring together these partners and are focused on the delivery of practical projects on the ground. We are purposely creating a “learning by doing” environment; a culture focused on high-quality outcomes but which seeks to build trust and understanding across the silos.
If we are going to spend hard-earned taxpayers’ money wisely, it is time as a nation to get more interested in implementation and practice than theory. We need to move beyond too-clever-by-half think tanks and once again get interested in practical people who do things and know how to deliver on the ground. These two amendments, which need more work, are a practical first attempt to find a way to move beyond the impasse at the centre of government systems and encourage this more practical and collaborative culture and approach on the front line. I am happy to meet the Minister and talk with her colleagues in government if there is interest, but, for now, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 282A withdrawn.
Amendment 282B not moved.
The full debate can be viewed here.