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We need to deliver real substance on ‘levelling up’ or it will become a meaningless sound bite


3 min read

In the midst of party conference season, the country is facing issues over the cost of living, with rising food and gas prices as a result of a shortage of HGV drivers, and increasing global demand, which is having a huge impact on families across Britain.

Prior to and during the pandemic, the answer to most issues of this nature was “levelling up” or building back better; but what does this actually mean? When you take away the soundbites and the speeches, we’re still asking questions as to what this will look like.

Heading to Manchester for my first in-person Conference since being elected in 2019, I believe we’re now at a crossroads. With real world implications facing millions, a sound bite and a catchy policy title is no longer sufficient. The promise of milk and honey down the road doesn’t help people now, so we face a choice of sticking on the current course where the destination is uncertain, or starting to put some meat on the bones of our polices to level-up and explain what the impact will be.

Levelling up on paper is a brilliant idea, allowing areas and regions of the UK that have been forgotten and left behind, – following the collapse of some industries – to catch-up. Putting investment into these areas without an algorithm that means yet more money going into London is an idea that resonates strongly in towns and cities from Manchester to Cornwall.

For my part, levelling up isn’t a shiny new building (although that’s still nice to have), it’s education, skills and training

But levelling up in one region differs drastically from another and can often have a wide variation even within the same region. Its greatest strength at the moment is also its greatest weakness, in that, because we’re still questioning what levelling up actually is, everyone has their own view on what it should be.

For my part, levelling up isn’t a shiny new building (although that’s still nice to have), it’s education, skills and training. It’s social mobility and improving opportunities and life chances for all by the end of this parliament. Whilst it may have been delayed due to the pandemic, this has to be our mission and if we can’t point to health inequalities narrowing, better qualifications, higher literacy rates and better jobs – then we haven’t levelled up at all.

Whilst levelling up means all things to all people, it unfortunately also means that it stands for nothing and if there is one thing that we should be taking away from Conference, it’s a clear idea of what this should achieve. The Levelling Up Fund will help but this is only part of the solution.

More emphasis on FE and the skills agenda is hugely welcome and a paradigm shift away from talking only about schools and universities. But we need to be looking at Level 2 qualifications just as much as we do Level 3 and higher, with a clear focus on what we’re going to do for the nine million people who can’t or struggle to read. And we need to focus on early years education – the building block for a child’s future success.  

When we can choose a policy, choose an idea, choose a sound bite, we really must now choose the impact we want to see, otherwise we risk these communities falling further behind. 

Christian Wakeford is Conservative MP for Bury South 

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