‘Levelling up’ – policy imposed in Scotland without competence?

National Audit Office on Westminster: ’lacks evidence on whether the billions of pounds of public funding it has awarded to local bodies in the past for supporting local growth have had the impact intended’.

By stewartb – a long read

The corporate media and BBC in Scotland regularly scan reports from Audit Scotland for quotable negatives. It’s all part of holding the Scottish Government to account! 

However, they rarely if ever inform taxpayers in Scotland what the National Audit Office (NAO) concludes about the Westminster government’s management of public finances. It’s as if individuals and businesses in Scotland who pay tax to the UK exchequer have no interest in how effectively and efficiently – or otherwise – Westminster uses our hard-earned contributions.

It’s bad enough when this reporting blackout relates to reserved policy areas like ‘defence’: substantial financial failings – waste – here have been exposed on a number of occasions with no media coverage in Scotland. Absence of reporting becomes of even greater significance now that Westminster is by-passing our elected Government and Parliament in Holyrood to intervene directly in Scotland, in areas of policy that are – or should be – devolved.

The publication of Westminster’s ‘Levelling Up the United Kingdom’ White Paper which details Westminster’s economic development interventions in Scotland brings this matter to a head. The over-reach by Westminster is wrong in principle. However, a recent report by the NAO reveals that it is also highly problematic – to say the least – in terms of likely efficacy, given the track record of Tory governments.

The NAO published (on 2 February) a report entitled ‘Supporting local economic growth’: It addresses policy within the remit of the UK Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC). It is a highly critical assessment of UK government capability and performance in addressing regional and local economic development: the NAO’s conclusions are remarkable!

Poor understanding

The NAO states: ’The Department has a poor understanding of what has worked well in its previous local growth programmes because it has not consistently evaluated them. Despite frequent changes in structures, funding regimes and local growth initiatives, external scrutiny has continued to identify common weaknesses, including unclear objectives, and poor monitoring and evaluation.’

Those familiar with economic development in Scotland, whether financed by the Scottish Government (including via Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise or Local Authorities) with or without EU funding, will be aware of the expertise in and very large archive of formal evaluation that has been built In Scotland over decades.

However, by contrast the NAO notes: ’Contrary to HM Treasury guidance for evaluations (the Magenta Book), the Department has not systematically evaluated its local growth policies to assess whether they have delivered, or are on track to deliver, their intended impact. Therefore, it cannot say which of its interventions have been most successful in addressing problems or whether they have achieved value for money. By failing to conduct robust evaluation or even write up lessons learned from previous policies, the Department has wasted opportunities to learn and apply lessons to subsequent policies to ensure continuous improvement.

Centralised control

The NAO confirms: ‘Except for the Towns Fund, which is for England only, the Department is administering all of the interventions on a UK-wide basis, working directly with local authorities in the devolved administrations for the first time in more than two decades. The Department tells us that it has set up dedicated teams to manage these relationships and is working closely with officials in the territorial offices to apply institutional learning. The ‘territorial office’ is the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland but whose ‘institutional learning’?

So a Westminster department, and government, that evidently has ‘poor understanding’ even of what works in England is now combining this with its lack of knowledge/experience of policy development and delivery in Scotland over the past two decades whilst circumventing Holyrood!

Should we be confident in Westminster’s ability to overcome these limitations? Well, not according to the NAO!

Failure to learn

The NAO concludes: ‘The Department has not consistently applied the lessons and key policy principles from its own research or from external scrutiny to the design of new local growth interventions. The Department provided limited evidence, for example in the business cases, that it had designed the current interventions using robust evidence of what works best to stimulate local economies ..’

Given that in Scotland, as in Wales and NI, there are well established and evolving, integrated policies for economic development this further observation from the NAO is especially concerning: ‘The way the interventions work currently makes it hard for local authorities to plan the joined-up investment strategies the Departments research suggests are needed to promote local growth.’

If it’s proving hard to achieve joined up strategies within England how much more problematic will it be to find coherence and value for money between what the DLUHC requires for successful competitive bids from local authorities outside England and the extant economic development strategies and initiatives designed and implemented by devolved governments and their national and local stakeholders?

On ‘relationships’

As something of an understatement, the NAO notes: ’The Department recognises that it will need to establish new relationships and understanding of local circumstances and policies in the devolved nations to ensure it does not award funding that duplicates or clashes with other national policies.

            Before reading the NAO report I contributed this on the Levelling Up White Paper btl                                elsewhere. It seems to be borne out by the NAO’s findings:

‘Todays White Paper states this: .. the UK Government will target £100m of investment in three new Innovation Accelerators, private-public-academic partnerships which will aim to replicate the Stanford-Silicon Valley and MIT-Greater Boston models of clustering research excellence and its direct adoption by allied industries. These pilots will be centred on Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow City-Region.”

This jargon-filled statement of intent adds credence to the view that much in the White Paper is SPAD-contrived shallow thinking produced for PR effect.

Since at the very least the Royal Society of Edinburgh/Scottish Enterprise Commercialisation Enquiryin 1996, stakeholders in Scotland in R&D, innovation and the commercialisation of science and technology have been working many and various models of business/industry cluster development, private-public-academic partnerships, knowledge/technology transfer, tech-based entrepreneurship, business incubators/accelerators’ etc.

The notion that we in Scotland in 2022 need a Westminster initiative to pilot’ – to learn about or trial – something as vague as Stanford-Silicon Valley and MIT-Greater Boston modelsis, candidly, laughable if not insulting.

Of course, as there is money to be had, the universities in Glasgow for example will likely lavish praiseon this Tory initiative regardless of its rationale – ‘Replicate the Stanford-Silicon Valley model? Of course we can do that – no problem – thanks for the cash!

The NAO adds: ‘The Department considers collaboration and coordination to be critical but has not yet established a cross-government programme to manage local growth initiatives.’ So despite clear deficiencies in collaboration/co-ordination across Whitehall this Tory government deems it acceptable and appropriate to circumvent the devolved governments and parliaments to impose its political agenda.

We learn more: ‘The Department has had to increase its headcount significantly and does not yet have the capacity or capability it needs. The Department expects its workload to increase significantly because of an increase in domestic funding arising from the replacement of European funding, and because it is administering funding on a UK-wide basis where previously it operated in England only. The Department is increasing headcount in the Cities and Local Growth Unit from around 420 (as at June 2021) to around 750, but faces longstanding challenges with staff turnover.

Ditching good practice

On the matter of ensuring ‘value for money’, the NAO notes: ‘The Department, with HM Treasurys approval, did not produce all three stages of the (usual) business case process for the Levelling Up Fund, instead consolidating the stages into a single business case.’

And on this more limited business case, the NAO reveals:This business case did not document, as it should, the substantive comparison, evaluation, costing and deliverability of alternative options for achieving ministerial aims. While there may have been good reason to move quickly, bypassing the earlier stages of business case review limits the amount of scrutiny and independent challenge.

Specifically on the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund: ‘.. we have not seen the evidence we would expect on the options that had been considered for achieving ministerial aims when government is spending such a large amount of money. This reduces our confidence that the interventions will have the best possible chance of delivering value for money.’

So a formal appraisal of the (obvious) option, namely to deliver via the Scottish Government and Parliament, as has been established practice agreed in the devolution settlement, was never undertaken? Decision making simply motivated by crude, aggressive Unionism and not by consideration of value for money – of effectiveness, efficiency and economy?

Damning conclusion

And can you imagine the Scottish press pack if this was referring to an SNP Scottish Government?

‘The Department therefore lacks evidence on whether the billions of pounds of public funding it has awarded to local bodies in the past for supporting local growth have had the impact intended. And it has wasted opportunities to learn which initiatives and interventions are most effective.’ But theUnionist media silence is deafening even though the Levelling Up issue has been so newsworthy!

How is it possible to be ‘better together’ with this?

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8 thoughts on “‘Levelling up’ – policy imposed in Scotland without competence?

  1. What a good post Stewart. Do you send posts to other sites? I feel this would be useful for wider viewing, possibly fire off a copy to James Cook (just in case he is looking for balanced argument), maybe Alex Thompson who seems receptive to a Scottish perspective or even James O’Brien at LBC? I will look out for opps to link it to replies to tweets or in emails, just about to send yet another to my local (sadly Tory) MP

    Having had to apply for govt and LA grants over the years I have often cursed the procedures and reports involved but I do see the importance of accountability for public funds – it’s astonishing proper scrutiny and processes aren’t in place for this level of funding

    Liked by 5 people

  2. The London establishment has decided that Scotland had it’s chance at independence (2014) and that there is no need to revisit that thorny issue….ever!
    Even if Labour are returned to government in London,the “one nation” approach will continue to be the response to Scottish aspirations.
    Labour will be hoping that the Tories completely defenestrate Holyrood before it is their turn so that they can claim it wisnae them.
    Labour were only in favour of Scottish devolution on the assumption that they would continue to run the branch office but now that possibility is gone,they want Holyrood shutdown just as much as the Tories.
    Control of the media in Scotland is important for the Westminster establishment because that is the only way to continue fooling as many Scots for as long as possible that we must not consider parting company with Westminster.
    Placemen and propaganda only work for so long however,as was seen in the former Soviet Union where most people eventually ignored the state propaganda apparatus and became deeply cynical about those who ruled them and for what purpose.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. Iain MacWhirter seems to think Scotland could have powered ahead with the 11% boost from Barnett.
    I seem to recall from years ago that Scotland required an EXTRA 16% just to fund Scotland to the UK average services.
    Iain seems to be batting for the Tories these days.

    O/T
    I saw Alan Cochrane (old Cock-a-Doodle-Doo himself) complaining in the Torygraf that Brian Moore was to be replaced by one of the “natives” to cover the “rugger” in Scotland and Wales–not quite cricket, what old chap?
    If he was looking for Anglo-sphere voices on the box, then he will have had plenty covering sport this week-end on about every channel.
    Even the curling commentator was an Anglo, the bit I heard.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. The £Billions the Westminster Gov wastes, including Scotland’S revenues is an absolute disgrace. Hinkley Point, HS2. £3.7Billion illegal unscrutinised contracts. Scandalous military contracts. Illegal wars, tax evasion, financial fraud. The list is endless.

    Brexit losing £Billion. Nearest biggest market, CAP payments, shared Defence cost, grants and loans.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. So is this a preamble to direct rule?
    It really does sound like something the incompetent Tories thought up while sitting in the commons bar quaffing champagne. How much is it costing because it sounds as if they are employing and deploying whoever, to carry out their underhand tactics to keep the colonies of the disunited kingdom from actually doing the job of government that they were democratically elected to do.

    It is clearly designed to stir the pot where it does not need stirring, deliberately spoiling the broth.
    Elbowing the successful, competent Scottish government in the ribs, the English government have form in being sneaky, not to be trusted, scheming thieves.
    Very sinister.

    Like

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