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"How can you not be in favour of unlocking potential?" The Andy Haldane interview

6 min read

Andy Haldane, the ex-Bank of England chief economist, was seconded into government to run the levelling up taskforce. He talks to Adam Payne about why he made the move, why the term “red wall” is problematic, and how studying history can shape the future.

Andy Haldane believes the levelling up white paper is turning out to be like the “opposite of a bad budget”.

Haldane, the Bank of England’s former Chief Economist, is not averse to an analogy. A bad budget, he says, “gets applause on day one and then slowly unravels with each day that passes”. 

However, in the case of this much-hyped 250-page policy document, which the government published in early February after months of anticipation and delay – and which also formed the basis of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s general election-winning manifesto of 2019 – Haldane says it may have received a lukewarm reception, but over time is garnering a growing number of plaudits. 

“On day one people were saying ‘there’s no money’ but then from day two onwards people started to see the real substance for bringing about lasting change”.

Haldane admits the document didn’t come with “huge amounts” of extra funding but argues that levelling up does not hinge on big increases in government spending. “It’s about how in this country we go about making decisions in a different way,” he says. “That's a message that is harder to land on the day [of its publication] but becomes easier to land over time”. 

For his part Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, described the claim that the Treasury refused to support the white paper with a fresh injection of cash as “bogus”, insisting that the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak slipped “a huge cheque” for the programme in the most recent spending review. 

Haldane says he expected that criticism when the white paper was unveiled and that since its publication the feedback from stakeholders has been increasingly positive.

“Having spoken to dozens of groups - political, academic, business, think tanks, civil society, local government – I’ve been pleased and to a degree pleasantly surprised by how positive the responses have been. If nothing else, it’s viewed as a serious document containing serious content.”

Haldane, 54, spoke to us in his office at 70 Whitehall, where since autumn he has served as Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary and author of the white paper, alongside Gove, trading the City of London for Westminster.

Johnson first asked Haldane to help flesh out his policy in the summer, with the veteran economist joining DLUHC “foot soldiers” in mid-September. “I was honoured and delighted to be asked. The topic is the reason why I studied economics, and why I went into public service.” He says Johnson’s “passion for the project came across incredibly strongly,” in their initial conversations and that they have spoken regularly through the process.

Haldane lavishes praise on Gove, describing him as “fantastically thoughtful, energetic and somebody who gets things done,” and the time spent working closely with him as an “education and inspiration”. 

However, while full of praise for his politician colleagues, Haldane admits the circumstances surrounding the publication of the white paper were far from ideal. He doesn’t explicitly mention partygate and the Prime Minister’s involvement in the scandal, the furore over which was at fever pitch early last month, but acknowledges “obviously it was launched against a difficult political backdrop”.

Haldane says that if the levelling up white paper is to succeed then it must survive changes of government and shifts in the political weather, or as he puts it: “the chopping, the changing and the endless upending of past initiatives,” a culture of short-termism which he believes has consistently prevented effective policy making in this space up to now. The white paper itself identifies “endemic policy churn” as a chief reason why successive governments have failed to reverse growing regional inequality.

This is a view shared by Onward, the centre-right think tank with considerable influence in Conservative party politics, which point out that there have been more than 50 local growth policies initiated by governments since the 1980s but despite this the UK today is one of the most economically lop-sided countries in Europe. 

Onward wants ministers to further protect the white paper in the long term through steps like enshrining the Levelling Up Taskforce in law so no future government can scrap it without first securing Parliament’s permission. 

Haldane doesn’t believe this is necessary, however, insisting that long-term changes like London-style devolution packages for regions which want them will be very hard to reverse once the wheels are in motion: “Once you’re heading down that path towards a mission like that, it’s pretty difficult to reverse that process.” He adds that there is “not one” politician arguing against the levelling up agenda and that a future government is very unlikely to seek to undo the work being done by DLUHC now. “How can you not be in favour of unlocking potential, releasing latent energy in many parts of the UK, in a way that improves lives?” he asks. “Hands up. Who's against that? No one is.”

Haldane believes passionately in the government’s levelling up agenda but admits he’s not a huge fan of how it is often talked about in Westminster. 

The term “the red wall”, now ubiquitous in contemporary British political discourse, was first coined to describe traditional Labour constituencies in the north of England and the Midlands that for similar reasons have shifted to the Conservatives in recent years. While Haldane agrees that these places have suffered greatly from regional inequality, for him the term is a “political concept” that doesn’t “fit the economic and social geography of the UK” or capture the full picture of disparity that needs tackling.

“It’s certainly true that the some of the red wall seats are among the most disadvantaged parts of the UK and I absolutely understand the dissatisfaction that people in those constituencies feel,” he says.

“But it's not just the red wall seats where there are pockets of dissatisfaction, forgone opportunity, deprivation. You find those pockets right across the UK, especially here in London. It isn't city versus town and village because there are many city areas that aren’t functioning well, and it doesn't divide into blue versus red”.

One thing he is a big fan of, however, is history – and that was evident in the white paper. 

The references to the ancient cities of Constantinople, Jericho and Florence were an unusual inclusion and attracted some ridicule but Haldane is unapologetic, describing it as “very deliberately cross-disciplinary”. 

Throughout his career the economist has opened “hundreds” of speeches with what he calls “the deep history,” drawing on examples from as far back as 50,000 years. 

“The dynamics of regional growth have been with us for quite some while and the history section was an attempt to make clear that has always been the case,” he explains. 

“This wasn't saying that everywhere can become renaissance Florence, that wasn't the message. It was pointing out that you need all these raw ingredients to be baking the right sort of cake, and that history contains the recipe book. By studying history, you can distil the right recipe book and then use it to create something that shapes the future”. Time will tell whether the white paper will be remembered fondly in the history books of tomorrow.

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