Levelling up: looking outward for inspiration

10 Apr 24

International success factors can accelerate levelling up in the UK, writes CIPFA chief economist Jeffrey Matsu

Skyline City of London-CREDIT-Getty-171377614


We often look to others to understand ourselves better. If we want to develop, professionally or personally, it can be good to examine our peers to help take stock of what is going well, where there is room for improvement and maybe highlight things we didn’t even know we were – or weren’t – doing.

Evening out the stark social and economic inequalities between regions in England is a huge policy, funding and delivery challenge for local authorities and their civic partners, and so looking elsewhere at what has worked is a useful strategy and starting point.

CIPFA’s 2022 research with the University of Birmingham looked at four international cities — Cleveland, US (above); Fukuoka, Japan; Nantes, France; and Leipzig, Germany — and identified nine common factors that were key to their levelling-up successes. These range from political will and partnerships to long-term investment to monitoring and evaluation (see panel, below).

Together with our colleagues at Birmingham, we wanted to apply this learning to the English context and see which success factors were in evidence, what was and wasn’t working well and identify barriers to progress.

England focus

We again chose four case-study areas: two from city regions — Dudley in the West Midlands and Enfield in Greater London — and two mayoral combined authorities — South Yorkshire and Tees Valley.

Following interviews with a range of key players from the relevant local authorities and the broader local economy, we found evidence of all nine success factors and also identified a 10th that appears to be important in the English context — transferable learning and knowledge exchange.

For example, Dudley College has played a vital role in driving economic development locally. Enfield is investing for the long term through the flagship Meridian Water housing scheme. Strong shared political will locally, sub-regionally and regionally is helping the London borough transcend traditional local authority lines. South Yorkshire’s strategy is informed by a clear and distinctive focus on health and wellbeing, championed by the mayor, while towns in the Tees Valley are diversifying away from traditional heavy industries towards the digital and creative sectors and, in Darlington, the civil service via a multi-department government hub.

So there is much to take heart from. There is, however, a range of common weaknesses and challenges.

Winning ways

10 levelling up success factors

  • Shared political will and partnerships
  • Clear strategy and vision
  • Investing for the long term
  • Local knowledge
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Adapting national frameworks to address local needs
  • Diversification
  • Key players
  • Adequate and responsive funding
  • Transferable learning and knowledge exchange


Fukuoka, Japan, was one of the international cities studied in CIPFA’s research with the University of Birmingham

Factoring in

Unsurprisingly for a sector under immense financial strain, much of this relates to funding. When set against international counterparts, funding in England is insufficient and does not meet local ambitions. Underfunding creates downward spirals, limiting the capacity of local government to address regional inequalities. It’s also too short-term, fragmented and inflexible.

Shifting to a single-pot funding model would offer local authorities greater flexibility to respond to local priorities and plan for the long term. Moves toward single-pot funding for Manchester and the West Midlands were announced in the Autumn Statement, but it would be good to see the approach deployed beyond these cities.

There is much to take heart from. There is, however, a range of weaknesses

Capacity constraints also posed a huge challenge for our four English case studies. Local authorities do not have the in-house resources to bid for funding or conduct monitoring and evaluation activity – itself an important success factor. Until capacity recovers, local authorities should be more strategic in what they seek to evaluate. Co-commissioning evaluation activities across authorities offers an opportunity to streamline resources.

Working with partners and across different levels of government is also important and presents further opportunities to pool expertise and learn collective lessons.

Lastly, learning is clearly valued but crowded out by more pressing priorities. A welcome shift for 2024 would be a local government system that promotes and protects collective learning.

Find out more about the research at cipfa.org

Image credit | Getty
  • Jeffrey Matsu

    Jeffrey Matsu is chief economist at CIPFA. With extensive experience in connecting policy with practice through evidence-based research, he works with partner governments, accountancy bodies and the public sector around the world to advance public finance and support better public services.

    Previously, Jeff was responsible for market analysis and thought leadership at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and co-led the economy theme at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.

    He was also a senior economist at Morgan Stanley and served on the research staff at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in Washington DC.

    Jeff holds degrees in economics from the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins University.

Did you enjoy this article?