Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.
To level up or not to level up? That is certainly not the question. If there’s one thing the Government has been admirably clear about, it is its determination to do it. But that begs rather a lot of other legitimate questions, such as: what does levelling up really mean? How will we level up? What level are we levelling up to? How will levelling up be measured? And if answers to these questions are not forthcoming, how can we ever really know whether we’ve levelled up or not?
Some of these points were recently put to ministers from the Business and Housing departments by the Business Select Committee. The answers forthcoming were clearly not to the (Labour) Chair of the Committee’s satisfaction. He suggested there was no clarity in terms of understanding what levelling up means or the policy which sits behind it.
But there’s actually a strong argument – although you wouldn’t expect the ministers themselves to make it – that the lack of specificity around levelling up, and the catch-all nature of the term, have added to its value as a concept.
The Conservative Party’s last general election manifesto talked about levelling up every part of the UK, levelling up skills and levelling up through investment in infrastructure. Prior to that manifesto, I produced a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, which called for greater devolution, enhanced skills, increased infrastructure investment and new Opportunity Zones as the principal means of levelling up.
Since the election, various other think tanks have put their own spin on levelling up, with Onward’s taskforce looking at levelling up the tax system and innovation, the Centre for Progressive Policy developing its own Levelling Up Outlook, the Institute for Public and Policy Research suggesting we level up health, and Bright Blue looking at levelling up in the context of deprivation.
This all-encompassing nature of the phrase, not yet defined by any mainstream dictionary, is surely more of a strength than a weakness. We saw this during the election. Then, across the former ‘Red Wall’ seats of the Midlands and the North, people voted in their millions for levelling up, without needing a detailed policy prospectus outlining which departments would take the lead and what metrics they would apply. Yes, they wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ – but getting Brexit done was just one half of the equation to making their lives better: levelling up was the improvement that would come afterwards.
For all of its lack of explicit definition, those of us who are who committed to the levelling up cause – and I include myself in that number – feel we know what it’s aiming at. We know that at its heart it is about addressing the long-standing inequalities which exist in the United Kingdom.
Levelling up is about the life chances of people, the prospects of places and about making sure our country is the United Kingdom it should be, not the divided realm it risks becoming. In that spirit, it can be seen as a continuation of One Nation Toryism, of efforts to extend social mobility and even of various Government’s rebalancing efforts.
Perhaps that is why, when Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street, having won his crushing majority in the election, he stood on the steps of Number 10 and promised to ‘unite and level up’ our country. There followed measures such as substantial increases in infrastructure investment, the creation of the Towns Fund and, more recently, the creation of the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund. These all suggested a centrally-driven, targeted approach, relying on the funding of specific projects to level up specific places.
But the ambition to level up goes much wider and deeper than that. Ever since the election, every Government department has been tasked with thinking about levelling up and how to deliver it. In education, that means better schools and improved skills outside London and the South-East. For the Transport and Culture departments, that means greater national transport and digital connectivity respectively. For the Department of International Trade, it means getting more investment into the regions and more companies around the country exporting.
Now, to bring coherence and strategic intent to the levelling up agenda, the Government has promised a Levelling Up White Paper. This White Paper is to be produced by ConHome columnist, Harborough MP and the Prime Minister’s Levelling Up adviser, Neil O’Brien. He is, in many respects, the perfect man for the job, with a first class brain and a long history of considering these issues, raised in the North but representing a Midlands constituency, and someone who knows his way around Whitehall.
This last point is critical given the clear intention to make this a ‘whole of government’ exercise. Virtually every department has been instructed to play its part in levelling up; the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recently put it at the heart of their Plan for Growth, and O’Brien’s White Paper is being run out of Cabinet Office, suggesting an ambition to reach into various Whitehall departments.
He will, no doubt, have received direct orders from the Prime Minister as to what he wants in the White Paper and perhaps the slight shift in language within the Queen’s Speech gives us a clue as to what to expect. That speech promised to ‘level up opportunities’ and the accompanying Briefing Note – prepared by the Treasury – tied the levelling up agenda much more closely to public services, such as health, education and policing.
This suggests the Government will be looking as much at the opportunities presented to people, and within places, as the outcomes which those opportunities might lead to.For my part, the most important factor I would urge the Government to remember, is that whether we want to improve opportunities, or outcomes, levelling up needs to be centred on the potential of the private sector. As I argued in my recent Centre for Policy Studies paper with Jake Berry on rejuvenating the North, only the private sector can offer the scale of investment, the jobs and the opportunities which can lead to long-term sustainable change.
Government, of course, has a pivotal role to play. It needs to think about where it invests, about the implications of the gravitational pull of London and the South East and how it can best break the trend of self-perpetuating economic failure in the least successful parts of our country. But, most importantly, it can help create the conditions in which private enterprise can thrive.
After all, to business-loving, capitalism-supporting types like me, levelling up can only really be delivered through the dynamism of the private sector. It is its agility, investment and innovation through which life-changing opportunities will be created. Absent of that, levelling up will mean very little at all.