Michael Gove today unveiled the Government’s 300-page White Paper on Levelling Up, its long-awaited and long overdue strategy on how it plans to make the UK a more equal society.
In all, the publication includes 12 national “missions” to be achieved by 2030 to be enshrined in a flagship Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
The White Paper sets out a series of national “missions” – from improving public transport to ensuring access to 5G broadband – to be enshrined in law.
But the big question is how much of the money committed to the plans is fresh funding, and whether it’s enough to really deliver for the left-behind regions of the country.
I spoke to Jonathan Webb, senior research fellow at the IPPR North think tank, to get his initial take.
An initial reaction to the Levelling Up White Paper
Jonathan says the White Paper is “certainly moving things in the right direction”.
He believes it’s positive to see progress on devolution - “shifting power away from Westminster into the regions of England” - as well as how the metro mayor model can be expanded more widely.
However, he warns that there are some key omissions.
“Perhaps the most crucial thing missing is the question of where is the money coming from,” he says.
“We've seen a whole range of very ambitious things promised on everything from improving health outcomes to raising prosperity, raising wages, raising productivity, but the reality is, we're not going to do a lot of this stuff unless we actually put the money into this levelling up agenda.
“So really, now with this White Paper in place, it's over to the Treasury to actually put some money behind this agenda, and make sure that it doesn't just become a very long document, but actually, it becomes something more meaningful.”
How much of it is reheated?
Many commentators have pointed out that much of the policy announcement are “reheated” - bits of strategy that have been announced in years gone by.
Jonathan thinks this is a key feature of the White Paper: “It does a lot of pulling together things which have already been promised, which you could argue, presents that in a more cohesive, collective way. But the other side of that is that actually, we're not really getting much in the way of new announcements.
“So for example, if we take some of the stuff announced around funding, we've been aware for quite a while now what the UK Shared Prosperity Fund adds up to or, to give another example, what the Levelling Up Fund adds up to. So I think, even though it does present this in a much more kind of cohesive way, and we see the agenda now, as it's meant to be presented. Again, a lot of this stuff is not necessarily news to anyone.”
Jonathan adds that it’s important that the White Paper doesn’t just languish as a strategy without action and funding: “Will we see the subsequent support to take these things forward?
“Or will the White Paper be the beginning, as well as the end of levelling up? I think that's where the challenge lies. And I think the danger for the Government is if it doesn't get the investment behind this agenda soon, a lot of this won't necessarily get off the ground.”
What’s taken them so long?
Levelling up has been Boris Johnson’s rallying cry since he moved into Downing Street in 2019. Granted, we’ve had the Covid pandemic to contend with, but why has this taken so long to deliver, and with a 2030 timescale, will it come too late?
Jonathan points out that this isn’t the first Conservative government to try to solve the issue, referencing the Northern Powerhouse and Metro Mayor models.
But again, he says, the danger with initiatives like this is when “they don't becomes central to the heart of government”.
“It's difficult to say from a White Paper, is the support in government actually, there for it,” he says. “It's not just a case of Michael Gove, the minister responsible for this outline in the white paper, it's a case of Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister, as well as Rishi Sunak as the Chancellor actually saying, ‘we're going to put the weight of our departments behind it’, because if they don't do that, it's going to end up like every other policy that we've seen over the past decade, that tries to close regional divides, eventually it fizzles out, and it will get replaced by a new policy that's designed to do essentially the same thing.”
The two things that can really make a difference
Jonathan believes there are two things that can really make a difference when it comes to levelling up.
The first is investment: “Making sure that we're serious about investing as a state. Recognising the calls that we want to see more proactive investment from the British state in things like R&D development, innovation in places beyond London, the great Southeast to get the economy going.”
The second is devolution of power: “Really promising to see the commitments and more devolution in the form of more elected members. But we should seriously think about the powers that those officials have, at the minute 96p in every pound of tax revenue ends up in Whitehall and is spent by Whitehall government departments.
“If we really want to lock in this shift and come up with a more decentralised and effective model of governance, we need to think about how some of those fiscal powers can actually sit with mayors and other similar bodies to actually lock in that change and give them the powers they need to think about investment for themselves.”
Is the phrase ‘levelling up’ actually useful?
The term ‘levelling up’ has been used so much in the past few years that it’s almost lost all meaning for most people. Is it still a useful thing to focus minds, or a meaningless buzzword that lacks detail?
Jonathan thinks it’s useful in the sense that it “puts the policies underneath on the agenda” but that it must lead to change.
However, he’s optimistic that the attention on levelling up is ultimately a good thing for the country: “Regardless of how we talk about it in the future, the issue of inequalities between places, it's probably not going away as a political issue. And that's a good thing, because fundamentally, given the scale of regional divides and the differences between places, it's right that we address it.”
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