Kieran Cooke is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue. This article represents the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bright Blue.
The Prime Minister announced last month that the Government will publish a white paper on levelling up later this year. Also, in the in the recent Queen’s Speech, the Government committed to “level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom”. However, is levelling up actually an ambition that can be achieved or will it remain simply a vote-winning slogan?
If the Government is going to actually “level up” the country, it needs to know what it is levelling up beyond the broad commitment of a transformative agenda of investment in infrastructure, research and development and skills training. Otherwise, we will end up with a scattergun approach with disconnected policies and initiatives that will not collectively result in improved outcomes. It is also only by knowing what you are trying to level up that clear targets can be developed. As we all know, what gets measured gets delivered on in government.
In deciding what it will level up, the Government first needs to be clear on the distinction between levelling up places versus levelling up people. Investing in places does not necessarily improve the outcomes of those living in those areas. By investing in places only, for example through the Freeports initiative announced by the Government last October, there is a risk that jobs created are filled by those commuting in from other areas rather than benefitting local people.
Conversely, a skill development programme may benefit local people but without jobs within the local area, those people are likely to commute to other areas for work, undermining the increased prosperity of the local area. To truly level up, the Government not only needs to be clear on what it is levelling up but also have a dual focus on investing in places and people.
The ambition of the Government to level up is commendable, however, the scale of the challenge is significant. The fact that a baby boy born in Blackpool in 2018 is expected to live 10 years less than if he was born in Westminster (Office of National Statistics) demonstrates how deep rooted and complex the current regional inequalities are.
The prize in addressing these underlying factors of regional inequality that previous governments have failed to reverse is significant. However, sadly the political challenge of tackling these factors is less glamorous and will require more radical thinking than launching “vanity” infrastructure projects which are more likely to be short-term vote winners but which – like all others before it – will likely fail to get to the root of the problem.
With an 80-seat majority, and a divided opposition, you could argue that now more than ever is the Government’s chance to focus on the systemic issues causing these regional inequalities. However, with small majorities in many of the seats they won in 2019 and the Conservatives already have an eye on the ticking clock towards the next election in 2024, the allure of short term wins rather than the Government holding its nerve in addressing the root causes of regional inequalities is understandably strong.
If the Government is going to really level up the country, it will require a focused and targeted approach. Levelling up cannot be all things to all people. An overall level playing field in terms of outcomes would require all places to have the same skill composition and be of a similar size. This is not realistic nor is it economically feasible.
Instead, the levelling-up agenda should be focused on those areas with the strongest potential to have high productivity and economic growth. Analysis from the Centre for Cities found that these are the largest cities. However, many of the “red wall” seats are in those small- and medium-sized towns and cities where closing the output gap is going to be less effective. Therefore, the Government faces a difficult dilemma on where to focus on levelling up and it is yet unclear whether the evidence or political calculation will prevail.
Finally, if the Government is to really level up the country, it needs to level up not only investment but also power. This shift of power out to those areas left behind needs to be more than cosmetic changes of moving the Conservative’s headquarters to Leeds or as announced in the Spending Review, relocating 22,000 civil servants out of London.
Overall, the concept of levelling up is an appealing soundbite to voters. However, achieving it is much more complex and challenging. It remains to be seen if MPs are in it for the long haul and have the country’s best interests at heart or whether they are looking for quick political wins in areas where they need electoral favours in 2024. And thus, leaving the country no further forward than where other governments have got to in addressing regional inequalities.