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Labour can challenge the government on levelling up by making it about net zero

4 min read

Whether Labour like it or not, it’s no secret that levelling up has become the defining mission for this government. Not only has the Prime Minister renamed a whole department to show its importance, he has installed one of his best performing cabinet ministers and former environment secretary Michael Gove to lead it.

But defining levelling up is a different matter. The Prime Minster has drawn on the example of Germany, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, with his vision of post-Brexit Britain being one where regional inequality and inopportunity are overcome through largescale investments in infrastructure and skills.

The problem for the Conservatives, having lost two years of capacity to a pandemic and borrowed over £350 billion, is being able to tangibly demonstrate progress by the time “Workington Man” sharpens his pencil in the ballot box in 2024. Will shovels in the ground be enough?

Interestingly, it might not be “Workington Man”, but “Wigan Woman” who has a bigger say come the next election. That’s what Kier Starmer will be hoping anyway, following his reshuffle of Labour’s top team. The new shadow secretary for levelling up, Lisa Nandy, is a shrewd appointment. She helped co-found the Centre for Towns think tank and the red wall electorate in the North of England may just see her as a more authentic voice on the issue. What remains to be seen is Labour’s alternative offer.

Labour should be unashamedly pro-devolution, with the promise of cash and powers to back it up

Nandy has gone as far as praising the government, citing developments in places like Grimsby which is on a path to regeneration through investment in offshore wind power. In Grimsby, 90 per cent of employees from a local energy company come from within five miles of the town - and 60 per cent of local benefit claimants have moved into work in just ten years. It’s clear that investments across the UK, especially in green technology, hold the key, so it’s encouraging that Nandy has previously held the shadow climate change brief.

But what, if anything, can Labour truly say differently to a government committed to a green industrial revolution and who have coined the phrase levelling up? With the Levelling Up White Paper expected, they need to decide quickly.

A good place to start would be asking the government to bring the Future Homes Standard forward. Over one million homes are set to be built between now and 2025 before new green regulations for housebuilders come in. New homeowners and the taxpayer will be left footing the bill for expensive retrofits in the long-run. Green homes can sound abstract, but what it boils down to is electric heating, double glazing and insulation. With energy bills soaring, and people on low incomes spending a higher proportion of wages on heating, energy efficient homes can be a serious money saver and vote winner.  

Levelling up is also about creating jobs. New Green Alliance analysis this year suggests investment in woodland, peatland and urban parks could create jobs in parts of the country with the most severe unemployment challenges. The Levelling Up Fund, worth almost £5 billion, has 60 times the funding of the Green Recovery Challenge Fund to improve local infrastructure, but this does not include environmental projects. If the definition of infrastructure was widened to include environmental regeneration, it would allow regions with labour market risks to create more green jobs. There is also the potential to create almost half a million jobs in repair and remanufacture across the UK. These place-based jobs are something Labour can really push.

Finally, the Climate Change Committee recently estimated that local authorities can influence around one third of the emissions in their local areas through place shaping and partnerships. Metro mayors, from Andy Burnham to Andy Street, have called for more powers and resources to help reach net zero. If Grimsby is anything to go by, nascent net zero technologies are the path to levelling up. Labour should be calling for a devolution settlement which sets binding local carbon reduction plans in exchange for more powers and resources.

Local and regional authorities are already delivering new approaches that demonstrate the value of locally based solutions: from transport infrastructure and decarbonisation to retrofitting homes and developing smart energy solutions. Labour should be unashamedly pro-devolution, with the promise of cash and powers to back it up.

As the dust settles on another week of musical chairs in Westminster – the race to the general election seems well and truly on. How the environment fits into that race, as part of the levelling up agenda, is yet to be seen. But the early signs are encouraging.


Joe Tetlow is a senior political adviser at the Green Alliance.

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