After a 30-year career in Threadneedle Street, the Bank of England's former chief economist Andy Haldane is no stranger to ornate architecture – but even he was impressed by the surroundings of the Royal Society of Arts' Great Room in July.
Addressing a socially-distanced audience, the RSA's incoming chief executive said he was "delighted" at the prospect of spending more time among the frescos of a room first opened a year before Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations in 1775 and where Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated the telephone.
But the RSA's John Adams Street headquarters will have to wait a little longer for its new leader as Haldane's career takes a surprise diversion into Whitehall , starting Monday. After a poorly received prime ministerial speech on levelling-up filled with soundbites but little else, Haldane has been charged with giving intellectual ballast to the Government's leitmotif .
As an economist who made the journey from a Leeds comprehensive to the top ranks of the Bank, he seems uniquely qualified for the mission. But doubts remain over how much he can realistically achieve in the course of a six-month secondment, and whether the Government will be willing to go as far as he has previously urged in areas such as devolution.
As a permanent secretary, his new Levelling Up Taskforce will stretch across both the Cabinet Office and the renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. It is understood the taskforce will subsume the existing Levelling Up Unit set up in May, and expanded in size from 15 to around 25 civil servants, split between London and the regions.
He will lead the work on a white paper originally expected in September but now due "later this year", reporting directly to Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. He will also work closely with other ministers including Neil O'Brien, the PM's former levelling up adviser, and Danny Kruger, who published a civil society review last year recommending a £500m recovery fund to support charities hammered by the Covid crisis.
That sector is also a priority for Haldane , who warned in his July speech of a crisis in "social capital" in the UK's "left-behind" places, where the missing link between the individual and the state – community – has subsided due to myriad factors such as a lack of green spaces, low engagement and lost civic pride. The problem he diagnosed was more locally based and complex than simple divides between North and South, making it even harder to fix.
Will Tanner, director of the influential Onward thinktank he co-founded with O'Brien in 2018, said: "I think it's necessary for levelling up because if levelling up is defined entirely as an economic project, it will neglect the many people in many places who feel left behind because of cultural and social problems in their places, rather than just the lack of jobs and opportunity. It's also about the decaying high streets, it's also about the lack of social fabric. Andy is able to marry that with economics in a very interesting way."
Haldane himself offered clues to the job ahead in his speech as he stressed that "what is measured matters, because what is not measured tends not to be managed". For a Government looking for a definition of its key policies, "the first job is to define what constitutes success," according to a long-time friend of the economist.
That will almost certainly be broader than the infrastructure projects beloved of high-viz toting politicians, the source adds: "For example, we need to know if we're going to try and improve schools performance – A to Cs at GCSE, or whatever. It's important to have some genuine measures. They'll need to be quite nuanced as things like income are not going to change radically quickly. It's not going to be just telling people that you're going to have a railway link or road in 15 years' time."
Tensions could emerge though as Haldane has a lengthy track record as a decentraliser who believes shifting money and power away from Whitehall to the regions is crucial. His return to Government comes just six months after Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng scrapped the industrial strategy council he chaired, when he pointedly attacked plans for "centrally distributed funding pots", saying the "best laid plans are laid locally. Put simply, you don't level up from the top down". Despite the demise, sources close to the council say that several members, including Haldane, maintained a dialogue with Number 10 throughout the spring.
Charlotte Alldritt, a Cabinet Office veteran who leads the Centre for Progressive Policy, said she noted with a "wry smile" the dropping of "local government" from the levelling up department's new name. "There's massive questions that I know Andy is going to be wanting to grapple with – for example, how far the Government wants to control it from the centre or how much it wants to push out into the regions," she says.
Those with experience of Whitehall say that the best he can hope for in six months is to set out the roadmap, rather than deliver on the ground. The experience of Sir Kevan Collins, who quit as "education recovery" tsar in June after his £10bn catch-up plan was rebuffed with a fraction of the funding, also shows he will need a fair wind from the Treasury to get anywhere.
Alldritt adds: "Kevan Collins came in to do a particular thing, on a very tight remit, but didn't get the settlement. Then he felt like he was humiliated and left pretty powerless to affect change. Depending on the spending review settlement, Andy might find himself in a similar position."
Haldane's outspoken record suggests he is unlikely to go quietly if such a scenario occurs: armed with the ear of the PM and tasked with planning how to turn vague pledges into reality, he is now arguably one of the most important men in Government.
With so much riding on hanging on to the voters who trusted the Conservatives for the first time in 2019, ministers will be desperately willing him to succeed.
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