Design industry experts react to the government’s Levelling Up white paper

Following the release of the white paper last week, we asked design experts to comment on how they feel the government’s plans will affect the industry.

The long-awaited white paper detailing how Boris Johnson’s Conservative government will “Level Up” the country was published last week.

Unveiled by levelling up secretary Michael Gove, the 332-page document sets forth how the government plans to close the gap between the richest and poorest parts of the country, with interventions across areas like education, transport and broadband.

Johnson’s Levelling Up plan has been contentious among politicians and the public alike since he made it the focus of the Tories’ election-winning manifesto in 2019.

Following the release of the paper, Labour’s shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy accused Gove of “turbocharging the decline of our communities, cutting off choices and chances for a generation of young people,” and went on to say the document’s “12 missions” towards equality are no more than “12 admissions of failure”. Meanwhile Institute for Fiscal Studies director Paul Johnson called the policies “too ambitious”, given the amount of resources being set aside.

In such a large document, there are plenty of promises being made and many are likely to affect designers. Here’s what design industry experts thought of the plans:

“Significant investment will be necessary”

Creative UK (formerly Creative Industries Federation and Creative England) chief executive Caroline Norbury echoes some of the doubts raised by others. In particular, she says the white paper falls short by not fully replacing the money previously received by the European Union.

“European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) contributed more than £400 million to projects supporting the creative industries in England, Wales and Scotland, providing vital cash injections that improved living standards in areas with the greatest need,” she says. “Significant investment will be necessary to realise government’s ambitions and ensure no-one is left behind.”

Norbury also pointed to the lack of promises made in regard to creative education and security for freelancers, claiming UK growth and innovation without these things will be untenable. “[We need to] sustain and grow a diverse talent pipeline to not only fuel our world-leading creative industries, but to boost entrepreneurialism and future-proof local industries and jobs.” Design Week recently wrote about what exactly Labour and the Tories are offering the country’s designers.

Meanwhile Norbury supported the fact the government is even looking to address geographic inequalities is a step in the right direction: “We strongly believe that while talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.”

“Innovation in and of itself changes nothing”

The opportunity for design to help enable the government realise its plans to Level Up was a point made by both the Design Business Association (DBA) and the Design Council. DBA chief executive officer Deborah Dawton says the plans are a “great opportunity for design”, provided the government is willing to work this way.

“The role that designers can and should play in the investment and innovation agenda that the Levelling Up white paper calls for, will be critical to over-coming those deep-rooted challenges that have held us back from being a nation that prospers at a city, town and village level,” she says.

Dawton says the focus the government has placed on innovation is a prime example of how design will need to be embraced. Referencing the DBA’s own Design Effectiveness Awards, she says the designer’s role in “commercialising innovation” will be paramount. “Innovation in and of itself of course changes nothing,” Dawton explains.

“Measures put in place must be counterbalanced by regenerative interventions”

Design Council senior programme manager Frederik Weissenborn equally believes the white paper’s plans could spell positive things for designers, provided they are recognised appropriately.

Referencing a research project conducted by the organisation, BOP Consulting, the Enterprise Research Centre in Warwick and Aston Business Schools, he says there are particularly promising “micro-clusters of design activity” in places like Hull, Newcastle and Glasgow which could substantially benefit from the government’s Levelling Up agenda.

He also welcomes the government’s vision to restore “a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost”. “Too many towns and villages have been left behind in recent years – experience concurrent waves of economic stagnation and socio-cultural decline – and it is critical that these challenges are now addressed head on,” Weissenborn says. Place shaping programmes, like those conducted by the Design Council, he says, can play a “leading role” in this ambition.

However Weissenborn stresses that any and all Levelling Up progress should not come at the detriment of the planet. “We are living through a climate emergency and measures put in place to support local economies must be counterbalanced by regenerative interventions and the exploration of circular economy principles at a national scale,” he says.

What do you think of the Levelling Up paper? Let us know in the comments below…

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