When Boris Johnson won a landslide general election in 2019, he pledged to ‘level up’ the United Kingdom, spreading opportunity across the UK to reduce regional inequalities. It was a policy that Johnson rode all the way into Downing Street, but it has seemingly been on the backburner ever since.
As we emerged from the Coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, the white paper for levelling up was finally released. This white paper outlined the pledge in greater detail, but it has since been thrown into disarray after Johnson was forced to resign as Prime Minister.
Since then, Liz Truss has been and gone and Rishi Sunak now holds the keys (to the door that no Prime Minister opens themselves). In his first speech as Prime Minister, Sunak reaffirmed his party’s commitment to the 2019 manifesto, and the levelling up agenda.
To gain a better understanding of how levelling up has been going in regions across the United Kingdom and the obstacles currently in place, Curia hosted a roundtable held under the Chatham House rule with local, regional and national politicians to discuss the subject.
“It’s going to take time, but we’ve made a good start”
The discussion initially focused on how the levelling up agenda has been rolling out in the areas represented by the MPs on the panel.
Given that the roundtable was hosted in Birmingham, the discussion began by exploring the focus in the Midlands on housing development. New construction technologies are being used to build new homes which, as a result, are bringing more jobs to the area. On top of that, the Government has set up a taskforce in Wolverhampton to further develop these technologies, with the Ministry of Housing’s second base now in Wolverhampton.
One MP told the roundtable: “The challenges we face relate to training and opportunities. It’s going to take time, but we’ve made a good start.”
In mid-Wales, the focus is on looking at how rural areas can be levelled up, with a particular focus on greater connectivity, and the promise this offers the rural economy.
While many parts of the UK enjoy excellent broadband speeds, rural areas are held back by poor signal. This, in turn, means that businesses avoid setting up base in these areas, preventing them from developing at the same pace as other parts of the country.
One MP commented:
“People choose to ignore rural deprivation because aesthetically, these areas are beautiful. Sadly, in the constituency that I represent we don’t have good broadband, don’t have a hospital and only have one A road in and out. Until we start looking at levelling up with a rural lens, areas like mine are going to be restricted.”
Levelling up, or levelling down?
Another key point that came up throughout the discussion was the accusation that levelling up has been more about downgrading affluent communities to meet poorer ones, rather than boosting them up to meet the currently affluent ones.
On this point one roundtable leader, said:
“Levelling up is meant to be about bringing the neglected parts of our constituencies up to the levels of the thriving parts, but the other side of the coin is levelling down. What we need to think about is whether it’s about making everyone equal or if it’s about making sure that areas with no investment are simply getting the investment they deserve.”
They said levelling up is a long-term strategy that all political parties in the United Kingdom need to get on board with. Unless everyone is pulling in the same direction on this policy, then it is doomed to fail. They said:
“Everyone needs to accept that this a national agreement and that isn’t a Tory thing, or a Labour thing. The idea is that when someone goes to vote at the next general election that they will walk to their polling station and realise that things have developed in their area since the last time they went to vote.”
The challenges caused by devolution
Many of the issues that emerge in relation to levelling up stem from devolution in the UK. With so many layers of government, it’s difficult for people in local areas to know who is responsible for the levelling up agenda in their towns and cities.
Local councillors believe they should have more power when it comes to deciding where level-up funding goes while the Government is still the ultimate decision maker. Perhaps the best solution is, at the very least, to make it clear to the public who is responsible for levelling up – Local councils, Local MPs or the wider government?
One MP says that this issue is further amplified in Wales, due to the addition of the Welsh assembly. They said:
“Everyone expects the same standard of life and rightly so. We have so many layers of government and people are not particularly informed on who their decision-makers are and we need to figure out a way to get this message across.”
Giving local authorities more autonomy
One local Councillor for Wiltshire believed that central government is making life incredibly hard for local councils to implement real, ‘level-up-worthy’ change. They said that certain policies relating to sustainability are making it impossible for new homes to be built in rural areas and that the funding process is flawed.
They said: “We are being forced to bid for funding pots that we have no idea if we’re going to get or not. So, we start engaging with our local communities about what we could do to improve the area only to then find out later down the line that we aren’t getting the funding.”
As a result of this process, it is understandable that many people up and down the country believe they are being lied to by their local councillors. It is therefore paramount that levelling up processes increase in pace and that lines of communication are opened up to make it clear who is and who isn’t responsible for levelling up.
Curia’s Levelling Up Commission
In 2023, policy institute Curia will publish a book with chapters from leading MPs and local government leaders on their collective visions for Levelling Up.
Chaired by former Lord Chancellor and local councillor, Sir Robert Buckland KC MP, the commission will look at various elements of the agenda and set out a future vision.
To find out more about the Commission visit: www.curiauk.com