Comment Blog 27 September, 2023

Whatever happened to Levelling Up?

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

In a few days, the Conservative Party will be arriving in Manchester for its annual conference — almost certainly the last before a general election. Reform will be there, of course: we have a fantastic programme of events at both major party conferences this year. But more than anything else, I’ll be interested to see if the single biggest part of this government’s domestic policy agenda — ‘Levelling Up’ — gets much attention at all.

In 2019, the major electoral victory scored by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives was built upon two pillars: a promise to ‘get Brexit done’ (appealing to both leavers and those exhausted by years of political bickering on the subject), and the connected undertaking to ‘level up’ across the country. Precisely what ‘levelling up’ means has been a subject of debate. But, at its core, this is the idea of addressing the disparities —  in terms of outcomes, opportunities, and economic performance —  that exist between different parts of England.

We had to wait until early 2022 for the Levelling Up White Paper — essentially a programme for government in its own right, comprising a dozen ‘missions’ which, taken together, set out something close to a full domestic policy agenda. Millions of pounds were to be distributed to local government and communities (though using some rather wasteful competitive allocation processes), while new waves of devolution were to provide genuine local leadership to help produce change.

Some of this has happened. New devolution deals are under negotiation, new metro mayors will be taking office, and two landmark ‘trailblazer’ settlements have been agreed with two of the most mature regional ‘combined authorities’, in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester. Those deals aren’t just window dressing: they arguably represent the single most radical development in English devolution since the 1970s, with the promise of block-allocated funding for the combined authorities to use as they will. Meanwhile, the dedicated ‘Levelling Up Fund’ is into its third round — though there are serious questions to ask about how effectively this approach manages to share resources to the places where they are most needed.

All such progress has been despite the prevailing economic and political headwinds. Since 2019 we’ve seen a global pandemic, a land war in Europe, an inflation crisis, and drastic turmoil in Westminster and Whitehall, resulting in two new prime ministers — both of whom have been noticeably less committed to levelling up.

But where do we stand now? Michael Gove remains a crusader for the levelling up cause, and this (as well as the efforts of last year’s interim DLUHC Secretary of State, Greg Clark) is a big reason why the devolution programme continues to ramp-up. But Gove and his department have faced no shortage of distractions and obstacles, from tight Treasury controls on spending decisions to the need for rapid action on the quality of social and privately rented housing.

On the Labour side, the language of levelling up is still occasionally in use, and Gordon Brown’s A New Britain report offered an ambitious version of the agenda, mingled with major constitutional reform proposals. However, the demotion of Lisa Nandy, generally seen as a champion for Labour’s take on a pro-localism levelling up programme, is not a promising sign; neither is Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ flip-flop on fiscal devolution.

Meanwhile, Reform’s role as policy partner for the APPG for ‘Left Behind’ Neighbourhoods and contribution to its inquiry into levelling up has also revealed something important. Whether it founders or prospers, there is a real risk that levelling up policies, as they are currently designed, are misdirected – and will fail to make a difference where it’s really needed.

Look out for the inquiry’s final report next month to learn more.