What is levelling up? Meaning of government mission - and Michael Gove’s Levelling Up white paper explained

The National Audit Office said the government has failed to ensure its policies are working before committing to spend £11 billion in communities across the UK

The Prime Minister is promising to break the link between “geography and destiny” as the government publishes its long-awaited “levelling up” plan.

The agenda seeks to “change the economic geography of the country” and create better opportunities outside the South East of England.

Michael Gove said the levelling up agenda will seek to “change the economic geography of the country” (Photo: Getty Images)

A total of 12 national “missions” are set out in the White Paper to be achieved by 2030, which will be enshrined in a flagship Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

However, a spending watchdog has warned that billions of pounds spent on levelling up may be wasted as ministers are focusing on projects that are too small to revive poorer parts of the country and ignoring “what works”.

The National Audit Office (NAO) criticised Michael Gove’s levelling up department, saying it “has wasted opportunities to learn lessons” about what will be successful.

The spending watchdog hit out at grants from the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund and £3.2bn Towns Fund for not being “based on evidence”.

What is ‘levelling up’?

‘Levelling up’ refers to the government’s plan to close the gap between rich and poor parts of the UK.

Boris Johnson put ‘levelling up’ at the heart of the Conservative’s election-winning manifesto in 2019, and it aims to create more opportunities for people and communities that feel they have been left behind.

The strategy, unveiled by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, will take until 2030 to achieve and aims to improve the likes of education, public transport, employment rates and broadband.

What is included in the plans?

Mr Gove said the government has “12 big missions” for levelling up and the pledges “commit us to ensure that research and development spending, the sort of rocket fuel that will help our economy grow, is spread more equally and also that we tackle some of the other underlying inequalities in health and education and housing”.

The first mission is to improve pay, employment and productivity across the country, and narrow the disparities between the best and worst performing areas.

Others include bringing public transport systems around the UK closer to London standards, ensuring the large majority of the country has access to 5G broadband and to increase public research and development outside the Greater South East by at least 40%.

Ministers are promising to provide more power to the regions in a “devolution revolution” with the offer of a directly-elected mayor for any area of England that wants one.

Derelict urban sites in 20 cities and towns will be targeted for redevelopment, with Sheffield and Wolverhampton the first to be selected.

There is a mission to effectively eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy among primary school leavers with the government’s educational efforts focussed on the most disadvantaged parts of the country.

There are also commitments to ensure hundreds of thousands more people get high quality skills training every year while gross disparities in healthy life expectancy are narrowed.

The paper promises to halve the number of poor quality rented homes, rejuvenate the most run down town centres and deliver a significant decrease in serious crime in the most blighted areas.

Mr Gove, the architect of the plan who will be responsible for driving through the changes, said it would end a “historic injustice”.

He explained: “For decades, too many communities have been overlooked and undervalued.

“As some areas have flourished, others have been left in a cycle of decline. The UK has been like a jet firing on only one engine.

“This will not be an easy task, and it won’t happen overnight, but our 12 new national levelling up missions will drive real change in towns and cities across the UK, so that where you live will no longer determine how far you can go.”

Why has the NAO criticised the plans?

The NAO report criticises the government’s levelling up department for ignoring Treasury guidance on how to ensure its policies are working before committing £11 billion to spend in communities across the country.

The spending watchdog said officials and ministers have “wasted opportunities” to learn lessons from past investments, and are relying on EU-funded research for many of its assessments.

Despite committing billions to regenerating towns and communities, the government has “limited understanding” of what has worked well.

The auditors said on Wednesday (2 February): “It does not know whether previous policies achieved their aims.

“Instead, it has built its evidence base for what works in local growth by drawing largely on external sources such as academic studies and evaluations conducted on place-based funding from the European Union.”

The report also shows that at the blessing of the Treasury, the department has cut corners in developing a proper plan for the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund.

Instead of going through the normal three-stage process to design a business case for the fund, the department produced a report that did not properly explore the alternatives.

The Treasury said it had taken this decision because its officials had already been heavily involved in how the proposals were developed. They also built on funds that had already been in place before.

“While there may have been good reasons to move quickly, bypassing the earlier stages of a business case review limits the amount of scrutiny and independent challenge,” the NAO said.

A government spokesman for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said: “This report does not take into account any of the raft of measures published today in our landmark levelling-up white paper, setting out a blueprint for how we will reverse this country’s geographical inequalities, spread opportunity and transform communities across the UK.

“To deliver change on this scale we will take a radical new approach to decision-making, delivering clearer, fairer funding and unleashing a data revolution to help us understand what works.”

What has Boris Johnson said about the plans?

Mr Johnson described the mission as the “most comprehensive, ambitious plan” of its kind that the country had ever seen.

He said: “From day one, the defining mission of this government has been to level up this country, to break the link between geography and destiny so that no matter where you live you have access to the same opportunities.

“The challenges we face have been embedded over generations and cannot be dug out overnight, but this White Paper is the next crucial step.”

However, Labour has dismissed the plan as “more slogans” with “few new ideas”.

Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy criticised the plan for falling short of what the country needs.

She said: “Ministers have had two-and-a-half years to get this right and all we been given is more slogans and strategies, with few new ideas.

“Boris Johnson’s answer to our communities calling for change is to shuffle the deckchairs – new government structures, recycled pots of money and a small refund on the money this government have taken from us.

“This is not what we were promised. We deserve far more ambition this.”

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