Whatever happened to levelling up?

Big talk but little significant progress

There is no doubt that whichever Conservative Party strategist came up with the concept of “levelling up” did a magnificent job and played a massive part in gaining Boris Johnson his huge majority at the last general election. Just the phrase, “levelling up” was an instant eye and vote-catcher. It meant millions throughout the UK would finally get equality with the privileged in London and the south-east. Individuals would benefit, businesses would benefit, long-neglected towns, cities and regions would benefit, not to mention the three other countries of the UK in their entirety. Levelling up is right: it should have happened long ago.

It’s not just years, but centuries overdue. So, election won, job done, let’s get on with it then. Only they’re not, are they? Not really. Despite the bold words and Michael Gove in position as Secretary of State for Levelling Up – a specially created post – and despite the Prime Minister describing levelling up as his “defining mission”, not much levelling up has actually happened. Now, when members of the government are questioned on levelling up, as with most other issues, they fail to come up with a straight answer.

They’ve been well-schooled in interview technique. “Whatever you’re asked, make sure to repeat and stress what we’ve promised before,” some PR guru has advised them. “And most importantly, never actually end a sentence, no full stops. Don’t give your interviewer time to come back with the same question, or one that’s even more difficult.”

Slowly but surely the notion of levelling up is slipping from the government’s conversation. “Build back better” looks to be going the same way. Slogans are cheap, action is far more costly. Even when it is mentioned the words add up to very little. In the recent Queen’s Speech, one of the 38 bills being proposed, was a “levelling up and regeneration” bill. It promises to “improve productivity, boost economic growth, encourage innovation, create good jobs and enhance educational attainment.” Sounds tremendously impressive, but what are they actually going to do? In cold hard levelling up terms, what does any of that mean? Well, no one at this stage knows, or if they do know they’re not saying, because no detail of how this will be achieved or who will pay for it has been revealed.

The proposed bill does add that plans also include “giving residents more of a say over changing street names and ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from alfresco dining.” Yes, that’s what it says. Well, Johnson is no stranger to alfresco socialising, as a “Partygate” photo reveals. There he is, in the Downing Street back garden, relaxing over a glass of wine and a cheeseboard, having a good old chinwag with Carrie and colleagues. That was during lockdown, of course, when such gatherings were banned. The Metropolitan Police eventually decided that Johnson broke no laws on that occasion. Historians, though, may yet come to conclude that Partygate rather than levelling up was “defining” for the Prime Minister.

Levelling up in numbers

When the Tories returned to power in 2010, there were 29 billionaires in the UK. Now there are 177 and one third of those donate to the Conservative Party. Levelling up? Meanwhile, Ashfield Conservative MP, Lee Anderson reckons that despite the cost-of-living crisis, with spiralling inflation, universal credit cutbacks and soaring energy prices, people can cook meals from scratch for 30p a day. Levelling up? For the past two years the number of people using the Trussell Trust foodbanks alone, has been over two million. In 2008/9 the figure stood at just under 26 thousand. Levelling up?

According to the Office for National Statistics, females born in the poorest areas of England will have 19.3 fewer years of good health compared with those in the wealthiest. For males the figure stands at 18.6 fewer years. Levelling up? Oxford University admissions for 2019-21: London 27.3%, South East 20.5%, South West 10.7%, North West 8.2%, Yorkshire 5.3%, North East 2.2%. Levelling up? Of the 79 areas of England to have applied for government funds to improve local buses services, only 34 will receive help. The Liverpool City region had asked for £667m, but will get £12m. South Yorkshire requested £474m but will get nothing. Levelling up?

More than 60% of England’s most deprived areas have, to date, received no money from the Levelling-Up Fund for towns, cities, rural and coastal areas. In the first round of payments from the £4.8bn fund, 28 councils had their bids rejected. This included 18 areas, including Knowsley and Blackpool, on the government’s “top priority” list.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised “at a minimum” to match EU funding post-Brexit. But the government’s Shared Prosperity Fund, intended to reduce the disparities between different parts of the UK, will hand out £2.6bn over the next three years, significantly less than the £1.5bn per year received from the EU to help our most deprived areas.

The north of England will be tens of millions worse off, with Leeds seeing a funding cut of 43%, Manchester 35%, Liverpool 34% and the north-east 37% overall. At the other end of the country, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly face a 38% cut. Meanwhile, some Conservative-dominated areas fare much better, with Oxfordshire receiving a 12% funding boost, and Hampshire and west Surrey funded at existing levels. Levelling up?

Surveys

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