More than a slogan – Levelling Up: Part 1

Written by

Oliver Hazell


The slogan

Levelling up entered our lives through the Conservative’s 2019 General Election campaign. The slogan was a cornerstone of Boris’s successful campaign which won an overwhelming majority just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Levelling up encapsulated what voters outside London had been wanting from a government for a long time. They wanted to see their high streets regenerated and thriving again, they wanted to see jobs on offer that were rewarding and paid enough so as not to require relocation to London and they wanted to see better public transport links from their towns and villages to urban centres. The Conservatives then directed levelling up at voters in the Midlands and the North where life has been particularly tough, opportunity in short supply and poverty disproportionately visible. The tactic worked. The ‘red wall’ was punctured, and the new Prime Minister realised from the outset that those voters in key seats like Bassetlaw, Bishop Auckland and Heywood and Middleton had only “lent” him their votes.

But those voters wanted to see results. Boris needed to deliver.

The reality

Over two years on from that overpowering election victory, the time to deliver on levelling up is long overdue. Another election is on the horizon and whilst COVID-19 clearly needed the bandwidth during 2020 and 2021, this year is a different story. When Boris and his team were able to get their heads above the tidal wave of SAGE data and advice from Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van Tam, they’ve been ticking off 2019 election pledges from their manifesto like a government ‘to do’ list. But levelling up appears to have been left until last.

The puzzle pieces have been put in place. First, influential and newly elected Conservative backbenchers joined together to set up a levelling up taskforce. Then came an official Levelling Up Taskforce, with former Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane at its head and a new Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, with experienced reformer Michael Gove in charge, supported by key MPs including Neil O’Brien and Danny Kruger.

We’ve also had visionary speeches from Mr Johnson on increasing growth, productivity, and prosperity and ‘pillars’ for levelling up including restoring civic pride, supporting local businesses and regenerating urban hubs, building the foundation of the reality to come.

The Independent also saw a leaked version of the anticipated White Paper on levelling up just before the Christmas break. It, again, included visionary narrative, on removing layers of local government, replacing them with a single tier system. There were “missions” for the government to complete on crime, living standards and health – 13 in total, and all with a deadline of 2030. Spending reviews would be used as review mechanisms and metrics for performance on each mission were set out.

But 2021 closed with yet another delay to this long-awaited White Paper. Now No 10 is mired in scandal and a cost of living crisis is in full swing, the need to move levelling up from a vision to a reality is becoming more significant by the day.

What’s next?

We had expected the turn of the year to herald this White Paper, with Boris and Gove using the start of the year to outline their vision on how this government will start the wheels of the levelling up agenda turning in earnest. What we got instead was a Secretary of State determined to make headway on the building safety agenda before any levelling up plan was announced and a set of parties at No 10 brought back into the media spotlight. These items have further delayed the White Paper.

But now, with No 10’s desire to get the media and political agenda back on track, back on the government ‘to do’ list of a manifesto, and the need for Boris to get voters thinking about him as a leader and not other words beginning with ‘l’, the levelling up White Paper is imminent.

But the White Paper is only a means to an end, not the end in itself. If voters in key constituencies don’t see levelling up happening before their eyes in their communities, the Conservatives will struggle to hold that large majority potentially losing dozens of ‘Red Wall’ seats. With the opposition becoming all the more credible as ‘partygate’ has unfolded, levelling up is key to who will hold the keys for No 10 come May 2024.

Join our webinar:

What does Levelling Up mean for decision-making on new development and infrastructure?

In our upcoming webinar, expert panellists will be discussing the potential implications, and inviting questions from attendees. 

Our panel speakers include:

  • Andy Street, Mayor of West Midlands
  • Lord Bob Kerslake, Former Head of the Civil Service
  • Jan Bessell, Board Chair of the National Infrastructure Planning Association
  • Steve Norris (Chair), Advisor to BECG


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