This post first appeared in the Financial Times yesterday, before today’s ‘levelling up’ announcements…
It’s been just over two years since Boris Johnson’s Conservative party swept into Labour’s heartlands, bringing down the so-called red wall. The prime minister promised millions of voters there that their faith in him would be rewarded.
He was the man to return their communities to prosperity, bring equality of opportunity and finally do what successive governments had failed to — level up the country. Those promises were made in a different reality to the one we find ourselves in today, but the government is finally expected to publish its repeatedly delayed levelling-up white paper this week.
It’ll be the first time we see some real meat on the bones of this slogan-cum-policy agenda that we’ve heard so much about. What’s more, Johnson sees it as crucial to retaining those red wall voters, whose faith in him has been severely dented in recent weeks.
It’s impossible to ignore that this is coming at a moment of seismic societal shift. While the pandemic has reinforced many existing inequalities, it has also dramatically changed the way we work, live, buy goods and engage with our local communities. This presents Johnson with an opportunity to deliver real change — but only if he works with the shifts brought about by Covid rather than resisting them.
A new way of working and living has emerged. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that online job adverts including the term “homeworking” are rapidly growing, with numbers trebling between 2020 and 2021.
This ability to access the best jobs from every part of the UK is crucial to levelling up. Along with distributing wealth more evenly, it will enable communities to hang on to their most talented people or attract them back to their hometowns rather than seeing them sucked into the country’s major cities, notably London. Those that are educated elsewhere can bring skills back with them.
For many, this is the yardstick against which levelling up will ultimately be judged. People have also reconnected with neighbourhoods during the pandemic. Community — long considered dead — has re-emerged. The London School of Economics estimates there are 4,300 mutual aid groups in the UK. Most of these have been set up since the outbreak of the pandemic.
The pandemic has also bolstered our beleaguered high streets with more than 800 independent businesses opening in the first half of 2021, according to figures from Local Data Company. These will provide a route to revitalising town centres as larger chains fall away.
Thriving high streets are vital to levelling up — they give a place its identity and promote civic pride. The white paper must signal an understanding that neighbourhoods need to be provided with powers as well as funding to thrive. It seems likely that we will see some reorganisation: with more power given regionally, through new metro and county mayors, but not locally.
The first question policymakers ask themselves should be: what’s the most local level at which this initiative can be delivered? It shouldn’t be: what are the policy levers we can pull in Whitehall? Radical devolution needs to be complemented by meaningful investment in the physical spaces which bring people together.
We began to see this at the comprehensive spending review last year, but analysis by the NPC think-tank shows that, so far, only 6 per cent of levelling up funding is directed towards social infrastructure. Investment in community-led regeneration will be vital in repairing the economic scarring wrought by the pandemic.
Getting levelling up right will be key to Johnson convincing his backbenchers that he is the man to fight the next general election, and retain those red wall voters. But a focus on the machinery of government, rather than a radical reimagining of who can exercise power in this country, is a missed opportunity.