If levelling up is to be more than just a political slogan, it can’t be achieved from Whitehall
It has been two years since Boris Johnson first introduced us to his levelling up ambition on the General Election campaign trail, with a promise to bridge the UK’s stark geographic divides. A lot has happened since then – Brexit, the pandemic and COP to name just a few – so it’s of no surprise, even if frustrating, that we are still waiting for him to tell us more about exactly what levelling up means and how he plans to do it.
Those of us who have been following this issue closely were hoping to get some answers in the long-awaited and much trailed Levelling Up White Paper – due on the same date as last month’s Budget. However, it didn’t materialise and we are now expecting it “before the end of the year.”
This delay is not entirely unexpected; the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, doubtless has his own ideas about what the levelling up agenda should look like. Crucially, in the next few weeks he needs to find an answer to the persistent question of whether it is just a short-term political project, to give the Conservative Party’s 48 new MPs a good story to sell on the doorstep at the next election, or whether it’s a serious long-term economic project for delivering genuine economic improvements to cities and towns across the country.
It should of course be the latter, and Gove’s initial public musings suggest that he understands this. At the Conservative Party Conference last month, he told a fringe event that it would be impossible to improve Oldham and Greater Manchester’s other struggling satellite towns without growing Manchester city centre’s economy – even though it hardly fits the definition of the left-behind Red Wall.
Ministers will need to accept that genuine levelling up will not be finished by this government – and perhaps not even by a Conservative one
Despite this, I do worry that electoral reality means that the whole levelling up project risks becoming a political one. Many voters in Red Wall towns lent the Conservatives their vote at the last election at least in part on a promise that they would improve their areas and the government is under pressure to show them tangible proof that those votes weren’t wasted. This is understandable but there is a fine line between the tangible and the tokenistic.
There is nothing wrong with giving voters some quick wins, such as high street beautification and funding for community football pitches, but without also matching these with a serious long-term plan for economic change it will only ever be an exercise in papering over the cracks.
The cracks, in this case, are that as the UK economy has shifted away from manufacturing and towards knowledge-led services. Many former industrial cities and towns have struggled to adapt to this change, which has meant many well-paid jobs have disappeared. This is something that no amount of hanging baskets can fix.
For the government, delivering an economically transformational levelling up agenda that makes people more skilled, richer and healthier means compromising on the politics and prioritising the economics. It will need to accept that meaningful levelling up will not be achieved by the next election, or the election after that, or even the one after that.
Since reunification, the German government has spent 30 years and more than €2 trillion on bridging the gap between east and west. Three decades later, this gap is smaller but it still exists. With this in mind, ministers will need to accept that genuine levelling up will not be finished by this government – and perhaps not even by a Conservative one.
Only once they are prepared to accept this reality, can they begin to put in place the policies, funding and institutions to bring about meaningful change: increasing spending on adult and further education and training, targeting science funding where it can enhance nascent strengths, and encouraging local authorities to bring their area’s crumbling, expensive bus networks under public management.
This is not about stopping funding for left behind towns for high street beautification and footfall pitches. But it is about accepting that these won’t – on their own – achieve the economic levelling up that places need and expect.
The government needs to strike the right balance between delivering some “quick wins”, while keeping their eye on what is required to see genuine long-term change. The Budget gave us an early glimpse of this: the Multiply maths scheme, the twenty planned technology institutes and the urban transport investment are all steps in the right direction. They send signals in the short term that something is happening, even if the fruits of these schemes will be felt in the medium term.
A significant piece of the levelling up agenda that what was missing from the Budget, and which I hope will be in the White Paper, is a commitment to devolving significant power and resources away from Whitehall. Again, this will require the government to compromise on the politics and accept that if levelling up is to be more than just a political slogan, it can’t be achieved from Whitehall. The government will need to work with and empower local leaders – many of whom aren’t Conservative – and support they work they are already doing to level up their areas.
There is much here for ministers and officials to wrestle with as they finish the White Paper in the next few weeks, but if they manage to strike the right balance between politics and economics then they could have a good blueprint for addressing some of our country’s most persistent inequalities. I hope they make the right choices.
Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.