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One year on from the Levelling Up White Paper there is little to show for it


Dr Simon Kaye

3 min read

One year ago, the government published the Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper. It took the winning, but rather vague, campaigning concept and in the aftermath of Brexit – and on the far side of a transformative global pandemic – set out what would be required to make it happen.

Now the levelling up agenda faces a familiar paradox. Too often, governments that try to address material regional inequalities create deeper inequalities of power between places. In the long term, it is these gaps in power that hold us back.

The white paper is 332 pages long (plus an annex) and has something to say about practically every aspect of domestic policy. In effect, an entire programme for government, elaborating a kind of Rawlsian philosophy where interventions should be designed to benefit those people and places in the country that are worst-off. Part industrial strategy, part case-making for the value of social infrastructure and community participation, the white paper culminates in a dozen ambitious missions, ranging from devolution and local pride to crime-reduction and economic development.

In just one year, the levelling up agenda has been declared dead multiple times

In the extraordinary twelve months that have followed, the levelling up agenda has been at the mercy of events. An inflation crisis and crumbling public services have made achieving the objectives in the white paper far harder. Under Liz Truss, levelling up was briefly transformed into a vehicle for local deregulation and tax cuts – before, boomerang-like, Michael Gove returned to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) to pick up where he left off. New devolution deals have been agreed in a swathe of places, while the combined authorities in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are believed to be on the cusp of major new powers.  

In just one year, the levelling up agenda has been declared dead multiple times. Perhaps the label will not itself survive another general election. But the agenda has staying power. A few weeks ago, Lisa Nandy described the white paper as “a 290-page history of the Roman Empire” – and then delivered a speech about how, in effect, Labour would go about realising (or exceeding) all of its objectives when in government.

However imperfect, a point of consensus appears to have emerged, transcending political differences. A connection has been made between the extraordinary overcentralisation of England and the widening differences in outcomes in parts of our country. The logic of that association is very hard to resist.

The more difficult revelation is that it is the very pursuit of universalism – of ensuring the same experience, the same quality of interaction wherever you are in the country – that has helped to bring about the postcode lotteries, the unfunded mandates, and the perverse incentives that levelling up seeks to tackle. Local potential is so often quashed by an earnest tendency to see the purpose of central government as a flattening, an ironing-out of local difference. The response to the pandemic, and the work of innovative localities all over the country, suggests something different: that it is by harnessing the distinctiveness and the sense of belonging in each place that real levelling up is most likely to happen.

Levelling up is falling into the same trap. The various funds that have been earmarked for levelling up are in time-limited, centrally controlled pots, accessed by competitive bidding processes. Progress on fiscal devolution has been kicked into the long grass. And despite making all the right noises about empowering communities to play their part, there is still little sense of how.

Levelling up, by any name, seems set to become a central battleground for the next general election. At Reform, we will be working throughout 2023 to build the case for the far more radical approach which will be required to deliver on the ambitions of the Levelling Up White Paper. If you agree, we want to hear from you.

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