Levelling Up without drilling down into the detail?

The long wait is over and we can finally feast our eyes on the government’s flagship levelling up white paper. The ambition to ‘level up’ the country was a key part of the Conservative’s successful 2019 electoral strategy but since then it has largely been a slogan instead of a proper policy programme to transform the country.

Today’s levelling up white paper is more of a mission statement with 12 “national missions – all quantifiable and to be achieved by 2030”. The 12 areas are broader than expected and reflect the understanding that ‘levelling up’ has to mean more than just throwing money at high streets in northern towns. Instead, there is ambition in a number of different areas that the government thinks has the potential to bring about systemic and substantial institutional change to individuals, communities, cities and the country as a whole. But delve a little deeper and we’ve been here before with many of these missions, not only via the previous Conservative Government’s industrial strategy but even from the EU’s regional development funds.

One of the government’s key arguments is that it is empowering local communities by allowing every area in England to get “London style powers and mayor if they wish to”. The problem here is that the Mayor of London’s powers are actually quite constrained, including in key areas where he’s publicly perceived to be accountable like policing, transport and housing. The Mayor of London also has very limited fiscal powers so if the government thinks ‘London-style powers’ are the silver bullet to levelling up then it needs to consider creating more local accountability by devolving some fiscal responsibility as many European mayors already have.

The ambition and breadth in the government’s objectives are laudable but voters are interested in tangible improvements in their own lives, not an academic dissertation on proposed local authority restructuring, especially with the distinct lack of new money announced today on top of years of previous cuts to local authority budgets.

By asking to be judged on levelling up by 2030, the government is moving the goalposts when it comes to accountability and expectation management, and gambling that there is still time before the next election to start to bring about those tangible improvements in previously forgotten communities. The government hopes to enter the next election asking voters to ‘allow them to finish the job’ but after 13 years of Tory rule, cries of ‘jam tomorrow’ may not cut the mustard.

Political consultancy

The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at chris.whitehouse@whitehousecomms.com.

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