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We must break the cycle of short-termism and futureproof levelling up

3 min read

The biggest test of levelling up is whether it can survive a change in the political weather. The United Kingdom economy has been unbalancing for decades and will only be rebalanced by the concerted effort of successive governments.

But past policies intended to disperse growth and regenerate poorer places have suffered from that most British of policy failures: short-termism. It’s vital that a new government – or new Conservative leader – does not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Britain’s regional imbalances are not for lack of effort or lack of funding. There have been more than 50 local growth policies since the 1980s, costing tens of billions of pounds. 

Margaret Thatcher had enterprise zones and urban development corporations. John Major introduced City Challenge and the single regeneration budget. Tony Blair unveiled regional development corporations and New Deal for Communities. Some of these initiatives were moderately successful. But none of them lasted. 

The 2019 election made levelling up a political imperative. But priorities change in politics quickly

In the Levelling Up White Paper, ministers diagnosed this culture of “endemic policy churn” as the primary culprit for Britain’s regional malaise. Compare the UK to Germany – which has been consistently levelling up for decades – and the consequences of policy uncertainty become clear: despite the legacy of communism, 12 per cent of people in Germany live in areas where the average income is 10 per cent below the national average, versus 35 per cent in the UK. Among developed nations, only Poland and Romania are more regionally unequal. 

This is why the government was right to recognise the long-term nature of the challenge, and bold in placing 12 explicit 2030 targets in legislation. Doing so will make it harder for successive administrations to unpick levelling up, and ensure that ministers are held to account for delivery. 

The new Levelling Up Advisory Council will further sharpen accountability, just as the Climate Change Committee and Office for Budget Responsibility do for net-zero and fiscal discipline respectively. 

The push to create new mayors also offers permanence. Once power is devolved from Whitehall it is hard to claw back – as existing mayors and the devolved assemblies can attest. 
But there is more to be done to ensure levelling up is not jettisoned in future – and the Levelling Up Bill expected in the Queen’s Speech is the opportunity to achieve it. 

First, MPs should beef up the Levelling Up Advisory Council and give it a statutory footing, like the Office for Budget Responsibility, to prevent it suffering the same fate as the Industrial Strategy Council, disbanded because ministers disliked the term “industrial strategy”. 

Secondly, Parliament should go further in forcing ministers to mark their own homework. The white paper commits to annual reports on the 12 levelling up “missions,” but there is no obligation for the Treasury to publish data on the geographic implications of tax and spending policies at the Budget. If levelling up is as important to ministers as they say, they will align the Treasury’s incentives to delivery.

Finally, ministers should give regional mayors a greater say in national policy, to provide countervailing power to Whitehall’s centralising tendencies. Why are mayors not invited to attend relevant cabinet committees, just as they do for Cobra meetings after terrorist attacks? Why are mayors not given term-limited seats in the House of Lords, of the kind bishops already enjoy? MPs should defy ministers to give good answers to these questions.

The 2019 election made levelling up a political imperative. But priorities change in politics quickly, as the last month has shown. If the government is serious about levelling up, it will ensure the feet of future governments are held to the fire, as well as their own. 

Will Tanner is Director of the Onward think tank

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