The Levelling Up Opportunity in 2023

As the political chaos that was 2022 fades slowly into memory those working in the built environment, including the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), wait with bated breath to see how the levelling up agenda will progress and evolve into 2023.

Dave is facing the camera with a blue shirt.

David Parry

Public Affairs Officer

Last updated: 23rd January 2023

Before we look at where the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill sits within parliament let us first reflect on what levelling up really means. To many at the beginning of the conversation, the definition of levelling up was anything if not evasive. But as more details of the legislation emerged it was deemed to mean the idea of equalling the persistent and historical disparities of economic activity, opportunity and education between London and the rest of the UK. Although we have now settled what levelling up means the debate now turns to what it should be called as we hear echoes from government on changing the name to ‘gauging up’ or something similar. 

Whilst this was a laudable and somewhat lofty goal the legislative action that followed confused many. When the first draft of the Bill was published in May 2022 it appeared to be a mismatch of various policy proposals, many of which rightfully deserved their own individual pieces of legislation. Chief amongst these was the Conservative Party’s proposals for a reformed planning system, dictated not by housing targets but instead by local plan allocations. Since the publication of the Bill, much of the conversation both inside and out of Westminster has been dictated by how a new planning system will impact upon housing supply. Whilst this is clearly a crucial aspect of the conversation surrounding levelling up, it has tended to distract away from other areas of the legislation that will have an enormous impact upon the built environment. 

Levelling up presents a unique opportunity for the construction sector, one that could not only cement a pipeline of consistent projects to drive growth in the sector, but also ensure that current and future routes for employment in construction are clear. However, without the right impetus from government, this opportunity could be missed. 

Where are we now?

Before we go any further, let us first take stock of where we are in the timeline of the legislation. 

Throughout 2022, the Bill passed through numerous stages including its first, second and third reading in the House of Commons, its committee stage and report stage. During the committee stage of the Bill CIOB submitted substantial evidence which can be viewed here

During this time MPs and industry experts scrutinised the Bill line-by-line to understand the implications of the text and recommend changes to be considered by government. Some of these included amendments to increase the independent scrutiny that the Bill would receive such as Alex Norris MP and Judith Cummins MP amendment (NC1) which would see the appointment of an independent body to provide reports on the Government’s progress towards its 12 stated ‘levelling up missions’ (an omission that many in the built environment called for including CIOB). Others would change the landscape of construction entirely such as Tim Farron MP’s amendment (NC63) which would bring forward the date for implementation of the Government’s Future Homes Standard for carbon compliant new homes. However, most of these were defeated by government and not included within the Bill. 

With that brief recap out of the way the Bill will now enter its committee stage in the House of Lords having had its second reading on 17 January. This is where many of the key changes to the Bill will take place as the Conservative Party’s lack of a clear majority in the House of Lords will mean they are less able to defeat amendments by opposition parties.

Levelling Up Opportunity

As mentioned above, the levelling up agenda provides an unprecedented opportunity to address the stark geographical imbalances in the UK economy through joined-up policy making that will require coordinated efforts from across a raft of government departments. However, there are a number of different areas of the draft legislation which we feel need more detail. Some of these include how the levelling up agenda will link in with legislation like the Building Safety Act 2022, what role sustainability and net zero goals play in levelling up and how new initiatives like the infrastructure levy will operate to encourage early infrastructure provision. However, for now, we want to focus on just one crucial area - the need to ensure that industries like construction have the necessary skilled workers to ensure that levelling up is not just a pipe dream.

Construction officially accounts for approximately 6% of economic output of the UK and provides employment for 2.3 million people. It is recognised as a vital cog within the economy, but it is far more than just an economic driver. The built environment continues to influence and shape how we live, work and play at community levels. 

However, we are cautious about the reality of achieving levelling up as currently there is a significant gulf between the skills which exist, and those which are required to practically deliver levelling up. This concern is reinforced by CITB Construction Skills Network data, which contends that 224,900 extra workers would be needed to meet construction demand by 2027, equating to 44,980 per year.

This presents a major roadblock to levelling up as many of the key tenets of the agenda revolve around providing funding for large scale infrastructure projects to encourage those who tend to move or commute to the capital to stay in their regional areas. These projects will necessitate large construction workforces to complete. However, there are potential solutions to this problem which are currently in operation, but without support from government are not likely to make the impact that the industry needs.  

There are many existing resources that the Government can draw from to help encourage young people to look at construction as a viable option instead of a last resort. These range from free resources such as the CITB’ GoConstruct portal, which informs children and parents about the array of careers and opportunities in construction and the wider built environment and CIOB’s Craft Your Future lessons which take place in Minecraft. 

There are also opportunities to embed construction at early years through the education system by mirroring existing systems used elsewhere such as the GCSE in the built environment that has been introduced in Wales by the WJEC. Alternatively, there are programmes for secondary school students that introduce built environment related studies at GCSE level. 

The upshot to all of this is that there are ample opportunities to help encourage young people to pursue construction as a viable career option. The industry has been working collaboratively for years to create innovative solutions to address the current skills gap and without the realisation from Government that these initiatives need to be pushed for even the beginning of levelling up to be achieved the industry is doomed to continue to see worsening labour shortages and therefore no levelling up.

As this blog was being written the second round of levelling up funding was announced. Whilst it is pleasing to see that the long-term commitment to infrastructure provision is being followed through in this uncertain economic climate, it is now a more important time than ever for the Government to communicate with the industry and fully assess whether there are currently the number of skilled, trained individuals to actually deliver on these promises. 

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is currently on its second reading in the House of Lords and we will continue to monitor progress.