There was some good news for levelling up in the recent Tory leadership debate (Monday 25 July): both candidates explicitly committed not just to the agenda but to the term levelling up too. The bad news is that – beyond this headline – it feels like we’re going backwards.
Commitment to the levelling up slogan
Let’s deal with the headline commitment first. Before the debate, there had been very little mention of levelling up, as leadership hopefuls Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss instead arm wrestled over tax cuts. This had raised questions as to whether the whole agenda was going to be binned, something that would have been a very bad thing both economically and politically. There were also questions as to whether the slogan would be changed. Like it or not, ‘levelling up’ has had cut through with politicos, businesses, and the public and rebranding it would have just wasted time. So, all this is very welcome.
Scrape beneath this though and the agenda does look like it is fast running into trouble. The Levelling Up White Paper, which was supposed to set the policy agenda until at least 2030, was only published in February yet just five months later, both candidates have been talking as if it never existed.
Truss’ take on levelling up
This was particularly evident from Truss. The theme of her policies – reducing costs and regulation to spur growth – fails to understand the barriers that are preventing growth in struggling areas. This is all encapsulated in her proposal for ‘full-fat freeports’ – zones with reduced tax and regulation to encourage investment. It sounds good, but here’s the problem: it is already much cheaper to do business in the North and Midlands than it is in the South, and regulation doesn’t appear to be a major barrier. It is because many areas outside of the Greater South East offer these benefits already that the investment they have had has tended to be from lower-skilled business activities.
Any policy designed to improve the performance of struggling areas needs to tackle the barriers that prevent high-skilled businesses from coming to invest. The main factors here are skills, followed by local transport and the attractiveness of city centres as a place to invest. Freeports, and ‘full-fat’ freeports, will not do this. If they deliver jobs, they will deliver more of the same, rather than higher-skilled opportunities.
The full-fat freeports term itself points to a more troubling trend in recent years. Increasingly the goal for politicians – in both red and blue – is not to come up with a well-thought-out policy, but to come up with a catchy title. ‘Levelling up’, ‘Boris Boroughs’ and ‘modern supply-side economics’ all fall into this category, speaking too much to soundbite and not enough to substance. If a catchy phrase isn’t in reach, a superlative is often used instead. Truss is choosing to turbo-charge Boris Johnson’s boosterism simply by sticking the term ‘turbo charge’ in front of as many things as possible. Here’s something to ponder in terms of what this means for policy – despite saying it many times, it’s hard to point to anything Boris Johnson did actually turbo charge. What we really need is for politicians to sensibly engage with levelling up and other policy areas if we are to see progress.
Truss also pledged to reform Treasury rules that skew investment away from the North, reflecting what Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen recently said. The current government, which Truss serves in, actually did this by reforming the Green Book, the document that helps guide public investment. That people are still claiming that investment would happen if only it wasn’t for those dastardly Treasury rules suggests that it’s not actually the rules that are the problem.
Sunak’s take on levelling up
There were some more encouraging noises from Rishi Sunak. He did highlight a need to tackle the UK’s skills problem. In line with the above, this is welcome. He separated the approaches to levelling up into economy and quality of life. This is sensible – promising to bring high-skilled jobs to every part of the UK is outside of the gift of policy. He has also previously said he would keep a cabinet minister for levelling up, which would suggest the policy is unlikely to slip off the agenda, if he becomes prime minister.
Yet while he did say he believed in levelling up; it was perhaps telling that he didn’t refer to the white paper. This isn’t a ringing endorsement of the existing approach and it suggests that Sunak would at least do things differently. Bearing in mind it took the Government more than two years to produce a white paper, further deliberation would surely be a recipe for further inaction.
In any election, the politician needs to speak to the electorate. So, it is not surprising that we hear slogans and superlatives that appeal to that electorate. The lack of substance under this though is worrying. This has been something that has always bedevilled levelling up and from what has been presented from the two candidates so far, it might be a problem that is about to get even worse.