Leave a comment
Be the first to add a comment.
Changing the name of a department can be an easy way of communicating a Government’s priorities. That, at least, is why what had started out as John Prescott’s mammoth Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and later became the Department of Communities & Local Government was renamed, in 2018, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. What exactly made it a ministry rather than a department is a question best left to Sir Humphrey, but the message from Theresa May’s Government couldn’t be clearer: housing was now a priority.
In last month’s reshuffle, the Government changed the name of everyone’s favourite political odd sock drawer again. Now it’s the (deep breath) Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities. Local government has gone missing from the title; in its place is the buzz phrase du jour. Levelling up, we are led to understand, is really very important indeed.
That Boris Johnson’s government would want us to know how seriously it is taking levelling up is easy enough to explain. The 80-seat majority it won in 2019 was built on victories in a series of seats – Bolsover, Bassetlaw, Bishop Auckland – that historically voted Labour but have recently trended Conservative, thanks in large part to two, overlapping factors: Brexit, and demographic change (basically, young people moving away). That, though, puts the Government under pressure to deliver economic benefits to areas of the country that the Conservative party has traditionally tended to ignore. Talking a lot about levelling up is meant as a signal that it will not be ignoring them anymore.
What the slogan means beyond that, though, is actually quite hard to pin down. According to polling commissioned by the Centre for Cities and ITV, less than 42% of the public think they know what levelling up actually entails; only in Greater London and the West Midlands is that number is more than half. In other words, in most of the regions the Government wants to level up, less than half the population knows what levelling up is.
That may perhaps help to explain why people in many parts of the country are unconvinced the policy will work. Around 42% of people nationwide have no confidence whatsoever that their region will be levelled up. Discounting Scotland, where Westminster politics gets less attention anyway, the regions most cynical about the policy are the North West (49% of people have no confidence) and Yorkshire & the Humber (51%) – in other words, two of the very regions the policy is aimed at.
So: the electorate don’t know what levelling up means, and they’re also not convinced it’ll work. What they do generally seem to agree on, though, is that something needs to be done to close the economic divide in this country. Under 50% of those polled in Wales and the three northern regions said they felt they had similar economic opportunities to those in other parties of the country; in London and the surrounding regions, by contrast, it was over 70%.
If the voters are cynical, perhaps we shouldn’t blame them. Actual policy interventions have tended to focus on the sort of things that cost little but look good on local election leaflets: extra cash for cleaning up high streets, say, or opening community football pitches. These are not bad policies in themselves, but they hardly seem like the sort of interventions that’ll reverse decades of inequality in the distribution of economic activity. The Government has made much of its efforts to move civil servants out of London, but just 17% of those polled cite this as a priority: nearly three times as many (48%) instead wanted better job opportunities in their area. The Government has yet to outline its plan to achieve this.
What might a truly substantive programme of levelling up look like? For one thing it would probably require investment – in better education and skills in some areas, or transport infrastructure in others – to improve the equality of opportunity between the rich Greater South East and the rest of the country. Different areas have different needs, though, and local people are likely to have a better handle on what they need than Whitehall, so it would probably mean devolving some of the decisions over how to target that investment to councils and mayors.
Oh – and not all the areas in need of such investment are currently voting Conservative, in either local or parliamentary elections. So a true programme of levelling up would probably require ministers to work with politicians of other parties, especially Labour – even if that means giving them good things to put on their leaflets, too
But all those things come with costs, whether financial, or political. They would require politicians to take on the centralising instinct that dominates so many Whitehall departments. They might mean accepting short term unpopularity – with Conservative activists; with the voters – in the hope that there would be a longer term pay off. They might even mean accepting the possibility that pay off won’t come before the next election.
In other words, all those more substantive “levelling up” policies carry real risks for the Government, as well as opportunities. Much easier, then, not to do any of that, and instead just to rename a department.
Jonn Elledge is freelance journalist.
This blog is published as part of an occasional series by guest experts to provide a platform for new ideas in urban policy. While they do not always reflect our views, we consider them an important contribution to the debate.
Be the first to add a comment.