Upgrade report co-author says UK should be like Renaissance Florence | Andy Haldan

The government’s new upgrading strategy should help Britain’s left-behind towns emulate Renaissance Florence by preparing the ‘secret sauce’ for economic success, according to its co-author Andy Haldane.

The voluminous report, published on Wednesday, has been mocked by some for its frequent historical references – including to 15th-century Florence under the Medici – but Haldane, a former chief economist at the Bank of England, is deadly serious.

Only by looking at where and when economic development really worked, he says, can we decide how to reverse what he calls 70 years of government failure to tackle regional inequality.

“The power of this is not that every part of the UK is going to look like Florence – I think that would be overkill,” he said. But he added that the “raw materials” were the right ones. “It was the meeting of scientists, artists, businessmen and financiers of course, as were the Medici themselves. It is this melting pot of skills and professions and sectors, public, private, third parties, which generates a sort of spontaneous combustion.

As permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office and former chairman of the industrial strategy board, Haldane was a key driver behind the 350-page document. It laid out for the first time what Boris Johnson’s election promise to ‘level’ the UK in terms of policies and goals meant.

Twelve new high-profile “missions” aimed at closing regional gaps in everything from healthy life expectancy to crime rates will be enshrined in legislation, giving the government a duty to pursue them. And a new wave of devolution will see every region of England given the option of a London-style Underground Mayor.

Haldane said the agenda had been made all the more pressing by the cost of living crisis, which is hitting hardest in many of the areas the report focuses on. “Let’s not mince words: the numbers are big and they are real,” he said. But he added that it “reinforces the importance” of taking action.

While experts praised its ambition, some questioned whether the white paper’s many aims were spread too thinly: Institute for Fiscal Studies director Paul Johnson warned: “There’s something for everyone, and therefore little sense of priorities: ambition and resources will be scattered very thinly.

But Haldane insisted that economic regeneration only works when a range of different factors are addressed. “We know that the secret sauce to success in places has these multiple ingredients. You can’t just not do transportation, or not do high streets or not do jobs or not do broadband,” he said. “You will fail if you miss an ingredient, the same way if you miss the eggs, sugar, or flour in the cake, it will fall flat.”

Another major question mark over the report was whether the Treasury had set aside enough resources to meet its ambition – and whether Rishi Sunak was truly committed to the agenda.

Haldane acknowledged that the current three-year spending review, which he admitted is “sealed,” should be just the start. “It’s a 2030 mission. So the government – whatever the government is – will have several bites out of this cherry. Several spending reviews to go through.

He also argued that spending on many areas of public services, from health to transport to crime, could help make the UK a better place, provided it is spread to areas that need it most. Not needed anymore. “We are talking about general well-being and pride in place; this does not translate into a single budget kitty.

All ministries will now have to report on the spatial distribution of their spending across the country, in the hope that this will help drive change. “Shocking: some departments couldn’t even tell you where this is happening geographically.”

Haldane also pointed to improvements that can be made without taxpayer funding, through regulation, for example.

The white paper included an announcement that the government’s Decent Homes Standard, which sets minimum standards that properties must meet, would now apply to private rentals.

“I was in Blackpool a few years ago now. And I remember having been around some of the houses in the private rental sector – they were absolutely awful,” he says. Official figures show that 21% of properties private tenancies don’t meet the required standard.”It’s completely intolerable,” Haldane said.

He added that “private owners will have to pay” for the necessary improvements: “I would say that is the right result”.

With the launch in the middle of another chaotic week for Johnson’s tottering government, senior officials like Haldane could be forgiven for wondering if their big ideas would last more than a few weeks.

But he insists the leveling program is here to stay – “the opposite of a bad budget” that unravels in days. “Looking at UK history and international history, unless you are committed to the long term you have absolutely no chance,” he said.

Lola R. McClure