Northern Tory MP Urges Boris Johnson To “Break Down Whitehall Silos” To Save “Levelling Up”
Former minister Jake Berry is calling on Boris Johnson to personally take charge of "Levelling Up" to make sure it is implemented (Alamy)
Influential Conservative backbencher Jake Berry has challenged Boris Johnson to take personal control of implementing the "Levelling Up” strategy if the Tories want to hang onto key seats at the next general election.
Speaking to this week’s episode of PoliticsHome’s The Rundown podcast, Berry, MP for the Lancashire seat of Rossendale and Darwen, called on Boris Johnson to “break down the silos in Whitehall” and “rip through the Civil Service notebook of reasons we can’t do things” in order to adequately deliver the government’s flagship policy.
Two and a half years on from the last general election, there has been concern among a number of MPs that not much progress has been made on the "Levelling Up" agenda. When the policy's white paper was published in February, it faced widespread criticism that it was lacking in detail, including from Steve Rotheram, the Labour mayor of Liverpool city region who described "a disappointing lack of any fresh ideas or funding".
Berry, a former minister and chair of the influential Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, believes Johnson needs to assemble a team “who focus in a really ruthless way on delivery”, which could include officials at both Cabinet level and within Number 10.
“Everyone really, political theory without implementation is a hallucination isn't it?" Berry explained.
“If you talk to northern MPs and northern council leaders who I spend loads of time talking to, they just want to hear about the implementation because they want to go and see it.
"They want to go out and say to their supporters, look, actually, things are changing.”
Berry said things are already happening in “many towns across the north of England”, but that MPs in the region still want to see "more of it, we want to see it quicker”.
While Berry, formerly a close ally of the prime minister insisted that “no one gets levelling up” like the Johnson, he believes that the policy needs to be treated as “a national mission" similar to the handling of the Covid pandemic.
"With ambition to deliver for communities who have been left behind by successive governments, both Conservative and Labour,” he added.
Berry urged Johnson to take direct control of the policy, which is currently the responsibility of Levelling Up secretary Michael Gove, if it is to be successful.
"We've seen the creation of an ‘Office for the Prime Minister’ as part of the changes he made after the first challenges around the lockdown parties," he continued.
“That needs someone in there who is ruthlessly focused on implementing the Levelling Up agenda, it needs real power, it needs to break down the silos in Whitehall.
“Frankly, if you want a new Further Education College in Darlington, you shouldn't have to go and have a conversation with the Department for Education, then the Treasury, then the Department for Transport to get the road built to it.
“That cross-governmental working, that ability to rip through the Civil Service notebook of reasons we can't do things.
“It’s exactly what we saw in the Covid pandemic, it’s actually what we saw in Brexit, and it's that sort of zeal for implementation and change that we need to see reignited at the heart of government.”
Berry, who was elected as an MP in 2010, and has held a number of government jobs, including as a minister for Housing and Local Government, dismissed suggestions that he might be keen to take on the responsibility of delivering the policy himself.
“I've not been offered a job, I’m not here on an extended job interview,” he said.
“I think it's got to be a minister with real power, I think what we really need to see is a bit of a breakdown in the power of the Treasury.
“[During] my time as Northern Powerhouse minister, one of the most frustrating things was that the Treasury had a sort of automatic veto.
"They didn't often use it, they just refused to give you an answer, which was the same thing.
“I think that finding a way to break some of that power away from the Treasury may be a reasonable Whitehall reform if we're going to focus on implementation.”
Berry also called for the civil service to be uprooted from Westminster.
“I'm a big fan of moving government departments out of London, but I don’t think they should be setting up campuses in various towns and cities around the North," he said.
"I think we should move the whole bloody thing up there, and they can have the campus in Whitehall."
In response a Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to levelling up across the country and the Prime Minister is driving forward this work.
“Our Levelling Up White Paper - backed by £5billion investment - sets out a clear plan to empower local leaders, spread opportunity and boost economic growth.
“We have also introduced our Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which will enshrine our levelling up ambitions into law.”
- To hear the full interview listen to this week's epsisode of The Rundown, out Wednesday
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