The upgrade will only work with local businesses at its heart

Shevaun Haviland

3 minute read

Businesses in the UK face challenges. Whether it’s trying to find the right skills for their workforce, the need to invest more in the local economy, and the value they place on their chamber of commerce.

Chambers of commerce and their members are at the heart of local economies across the country. They implicitly understand both the strengths and challenges of their regional business context, and they are often in the best position to know what solutions are needed.

When the government set out its four principles to underpin the race to the top agenda, neither the economy nor business was directly referenced

Upgrading is nothing new to us, it has been both an ambition and a deliverable for Chambers from the start. The very foundation upon which our network, which has operated for over 160 years, has been commerce and collaboration between regional partners, with the goal of benefiting local economies through business growth. As the only truly location-based business group in the UK, the principles behind Upgrading are part of our DNA.

Yet so far, when the government has set out its four principles to underpin the race to the top agenda, neither the economy nor business has been directly referenced. We are eagerly awaiting the publication of the Leveling Up white paper which is expected at the end of this month after some delay. Unless it spells out clearly how the government will foster thriving business environments in our nations, regions, cities and towns, the race to the top will remain just a slogan.

We need to be clear that while there are national policy levers that government can pull, there is no “one size fits all” solution to a problem as complex as regional economic inequality. While increased investment in infrastructure and skills is a priority, other contributing factors and nuances that apply to these issues can only be fully addressed by giving those with the required local knowledge the tools they need.

Companies tell us that what is desired locally is empowerment – ​​through decentralization of decision-making and corresponding funding – not more centralized policy-making and disparate allocation of money from Whitehall. We believe the government needs to establish a policy framework for allocating funds for the race-to-the-top program, and then leave the decisions on how best to use it to those on the ground.

It is also imperative that leveling up takes place not just between regions, but within them. Great inequalities exist between cities and counties and these must be treated in the same way as regional inequalities.

Chamber member companies are clear that what will give the greatest boost to local economies in all areas is to ensure that all parts of the machine are humming at the same frequency, we should not reinforce intra-regional inequalities by trying to correct other imbalances.

Chambers is ready to help the government deliver on the promises of its leveling up agenda. Time and resources should not be wasted trying to duplicate the kind of community links that Chambers, Councils and other local organizations already have. Our network can act as a ready-to-use pipeline to supply areas that have been neglected for too long by national economic policy.

Entrepreneurship and ingenuity must guide the upgrading program if it is to be successful.

Shevaun Haviland is the chief executive of the British Chambers of Commerce.

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