More than a slogan – Levelling Up: Part 2

Written by

Oliver Hazell


The White Paper’s initial fallout

So now we know what Levelling Up actually is. Or do we? The enormous White Paper spans over 300 pages and my colleague Kevin Whitmore gave his take on the White Paper here. He noted concerns that the levelling up agenda had possibly been introduced two years too late. The benefits of levelling up on the ground needed to be seen by voters, especially those in the Red Wall, in time for a successful 2024 election campaign by the Conservatives.

Mr Gove’s lines of “repairing the social fabric of our broken heartlands” as well as “ending historic injustice and calling time on the postcode lottery” in setting out his department’s long-awaited White Paper were heavily criticised by Labour’s new Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy. Nandy went straight on the attack with three piercing words, “is this it?” in response to the DLUHC Secretary’s statement. One of the main criticisms from the Labour frontbench was the lack of new money the White Paper brought with it to help achieve the Government’s 12 ‘missions’ by 2030, pointing out that the document only contained “recycled pots of money”. But it is always the duty of the official opposition to point out missed opportunities in government policy and scrutinise proposed legislation.

So what of the influential Red Wall Conservative MPs reaction to the government’s plans? It seems to have been broadly positive. Scott Benton, the MP for Blackpool South, made an appearance on GB news to tell the story of “real money coming into places like Blackpool for the first time in decades from a Tory government”.

Another Red Wall 2019-er, Paul Howell, MP for Sedgefield, noted the challenge ahead and tried to manage constituent expectations by noting “This will not be an easy task, and it won’t happen overnight, but our 12 new national levelling up missions will drive real change in towns and cities across the UK, so that where you live will no longer determine how far you can go.” Whilst Miriam Cates MP for Penistone & Stocksbridge penned an article about the benefits that levelling up will deliver to her constituents, helping to connect local residents in her constituency to “new jobs and opportunities” through improving local transport connections.

But the Chair of the Northern Research Group, Jake Berry MP noted “I don’t want the government to wait for legislation and debate in the House of Commons to get on with levelling up…Never forget, George Osborne didn’t need a levelling up white paper to create mayors for Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, and Teeside.”

Down south, North Devon’s Selaine Saxby MP sought clarity from the DLUHC Secretary “that he understood the disparities of opportunity even within our own county”. Not uncommon from southern-based MPs who feel that levelling up in the North and the Midlands would leave them at the back of the queue for important funding for their communities.

Arch-rebel Steve Baker MP went even further, openly criticising the plans put forward “The Government’s #LevellingUp press release implies the proposals are as socialist as I feared. We should be using our 80-seat majority to implement conservative policies, not policies that wouldn’t look out of place in Labour’s manifesto.”

A successful ‘reset’ or a missed opportunity?

The White Paper represented an opportunity to allow the PM to reset his domestic agenda away from the sleaze and scandal of No10 of late and bring focus on delivering on all those ‘lent’ votes from voters across the Red Wall. But it seems the Levelling Up White Paper wasn’t entirely the successful reset that the Prime Minister wanted. It didn’t have the superb reception that was hoped from Conservative MPs and there didn’t appear to be the usual set of media graphics from Conservative Campaign HQ doing the rounds on Conservative MP’s Facebook accounts either. It hasn’t particularly outshone the ‘partygate’/Met Police investigations, and the international concerns around Russian troops on the border of Ukraine hasn’t allowed the Government to concentrate its time on moving forward with the White Paper.

What is also clear is that the opportunity to really drive a lasting, long-term, positive message through the Levelling Up agenda, structured by the White Paper and a timeline of clear achievements both on the ground and on the policy side, isn’t something that’s happened. Instead, the White Paper appeared to give the PM a brief respite from other issues that aren’t as positive for No10 and certainly won’t help the Conservatives win the next election.

Looking ahead

The Levelling Up White Paper did, however, have some interesting items around the Government’s trajectory on devolution, on the 2030 ‘missions’ and on unleashing opportunity. However, one key item that is mentioned throughout the White Paper which hasn’t been spoken about enough is the installation of new ‘Levelling Up Directors’. The White Paper notes that “Levelling Up Directors will act as a single point of contact for local leaders and a first port of call for new and innovative local policy proposals. They will be based in the areas they have responsibility for, while recognising the different institutional landscapes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Levelling Up Directors will bring together government policy and delivery, aligning decisions and funding to support local and national strategic objectives.”

No detail is given about when these Directors will be put in place, who they should be, what past experiences (academic and lived) they should have, what role they will have when set against Andy Burnham or Andy Street. It seems like there could be a lot of interesting fallout and impact of these unelected, but highly influential Levelling Up Directors, especially when set against the push towards County Deals and a new English devolution framework that the White Paper also sets out.

These new Levelling Up Directors appear to be potential lynchpins to the success of levelling up in each region – ones to watch as we move further into 2022. Expect some to perform well and some to fall short, so as we move away from a postcode lottery, we seem to be travelling towards a ‘Levelling Up Director’ lottery.

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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