New study highlights best locations to level up towns and cities

According to the Levelling Up Opportunity Index, Bradford offers one of the greatest opportunities to level up.

Ahead of the government’s long-awaited levelling up white paper due this week, new analysis of England’s largest cities and towns shows that Bradford, Wolverhampton and Coventry offer the greatest opportunities to level up.

New research by the zero-carbon housebuilder Etopia Homes, which has been peer reviewed and endorsed by global infrastructure advisors, WSP Strategic Advisory, pinpoints the towns and cities in England which could make best use of the government’s levelling up funds.

The Levelling Up Opportunity Index compares the performance of the 34 largest towns and cities outside of London to identify places which might have traditionally underperformed economically up to now, but which have the size and capacity for substantial future growth.

The index’s findings come as the government is poised to launch its levelling up white paper later this week, which will set out in what ‘levelling up’ means two years after it became the central theme of Boris Johnson’s election manifesto. It is believed the white paper is set to focus on improving living standards, growing the private sector and increasing and spreading opportunity. 

Rather than simply consider traditional deprivation indicators – which might measure need but give a limited sense of how a town or city is functioning economically – the Levelling Up Opportunity Index instead focuses on data around potential growth, business rates, commuting patterns and land use.

The aim of Etopia’s index was to provide an evidence base which government could use to focus where it should invest levelling up funding to best drive economic growth. The study gives an overview of which cities not only require economic development in order to ‘level up’, but which may represent critical opportunities, too, in terms of their potential to grow clusters of high-growth, future-facing industries and sustain larger working populations if their economic growth can be enabled by development.

As such, the index uses a combination of standard “negative” indicators (such as low current GVA per head, low productivity growth and low business rates generated per head of population) as well as “positive” indicators (such as the amount of brownfield land earmarked for development). England’s 34 biggest cities and towns outside London were ranked on each of six key indicators, and the aggregate of all those ranks was used to give an overall levelling-up opportunity ranking.

Bradford emerged top of the list, indicating it has the strongest case for economic support as part of the levelling-up agenda, as well as significant capacity for new economic growth. Wolverhampton was second, Coventry third, and Luton and Plymouth joint fourth. 

The index includes a large number of so-called “red wall” areas where the Conservatives made substantial progress in the last general election. The top ten local authority areas in the list are covered by 40 parliamentary constituencies. 

The Conservatives won just seven of those seats in 2010, eight in 2015, and six in 2017 – but 13 in 2019. In a further eight seats the Conservatives were just 5,000 votes or fewer behind Labour, highlighting a significant proportion of winnable seats if the Government gets levelling up right.

The full levelling-up opportunity index ranking is listed below.

1. Bradford (highest priority)

2. Wolverhampton

3. Coventry

4= Luton

4= Plymouth

6. Sheffield

7. Blackpool

8. Middlesbrough

9. Derby

10= Birmingham

10= Leicester

10= Stoke-on-Trent

13. Sunderland

14. Salford

15= Portsmouth

15= Carlisle

17. Brighton and Hove

18. Kingston upon Hull

19. Ipswich

20= York

20= Liverpool

22= Leeds

22= Southampton

24. Nottingham

25. Bristol

26. Reading

27= Lincoln

27= Norwich

29. Preston

30. Newcastle

31. Oxford

32. Manchester

33. Milton Keynes

34. Cambridge 

Dr Tom Arnold of the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place at the University of Liverpool, said: "This study gives a good indication of the economic gap between our most successful towns and cities, and those that could benefit most from targeted support to unlock their true economic potential.

"The economic benefits of creating thriving, self-sufficient city-regions – not just for those that live there, but those who live within commuting distance – have been well understood by previous governments. Improving the economic fortunes of large towns and city-regions is crucial to the prosperity of places within commuting distance.

"The forthcoming white paper must explain how the economic potential of city-regions across the north and Midlands can be realised. If levelling up is to be successful and if it is to be of long-term benefit to the nation, then it must clearly include levelling up the economies of places like Wolverhampton and Bradford."

Ashley Dunseath, Director, Strategic Advisory, WSP, said: “This index provides new insight into the economic prospects of our largest cities and towns. In particular, the index highlights places which have missed out on significant investment over several decades but are known to have genuinely strong economic potential. 

“Government should consider awarding levelling up funding to those authorities able to evidence the greatest opportunity, and consequently most capable of demonstrating transformational growth by becoming self-sustaining and in control of their own economic prosperity.”

Click here for more on the Levelling Up Opportunity Index.

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