Opinion: Are we set for a levelling up reboot?

A prominent MP has been appointed as the prime minister’s adviser on levelling up. What does it mean for the next stage of this agenda?
The Treasury is set to move some staff to Darlington as part of the government's levelling up agenda. Photo: Alamy

More than a year ago we asked (in these pages) the question: what is the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda?

The answer was, in brief, no-one nearly knew. We pointed out that one Conservative MP was asking some interesting questions and suggesting ideas: his name? Neil O’Brien.

Scroll forward fifteen months and the Financial Times reports “Confusion over UK ‘levelling-up’ plan prompts Boris Johnson to hire new adviser”.

And who has Boris Johnson just appointed to take charge of clarifying the ‘levelling up’ agenda? Yes, you guessed, it’s Neil O’Brien MP.

This interesting on several levels.

First, it is an admission that no-one really has a clear idea of what ‘levelling-up’ means. According to the FT, ‘it’s a running joke amongst No.10 staff that “it’s a slogan without a purpose” ‘.

Second, bringing in O’Brien is probably only possible now once Dominic Cummings and the ‘Vote Leave’ cabal have been defenestrated from No.10. O’Brien is an independent thinker and something of a ‘policy wonk’ who would not have got a look in had Cummings still been in charge.

Third, and probably most importantly, will O’Brien’s appointment signal a change of direction for ‘levelling-up’?

Up until now, to the extent that ‘levelling-up’ has meant anything it’s been about geographical, one might even say constituency, based initiatives.

The biggest symbolic announcements have been about moving bits of Whitehall to so-called ‘red wall’ areas.

The decision to move about a fifth of HM Treasury staff to Darlington to create an “economic campus” was one eye-catching announcement in Rishi Sunak’s March 2021 Budget statement.

This followed on from the announcement in the previous month that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will open a Wolverhampton outpost that will see more than 500 departmental staff based in the West Midlands by 2025.

The only other big initiative that could be construed as part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda has been the so-called ‘Towns Fund’. Announced in July 2019 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with total funding of £3.6 billion, this was allocated through a controversial bidding process. And of course it came nowhere near replacing what had been taken away from these areas during the previous decade of austerity.

This is important because one of the points Neil O’Brien was making in Feb 2020 was that ‘levelling-up’ should not just be about geographical areas, but it should also be about individuals.

In a Conservative Home blog post he argued that ‘levelling-up’ should also be about individuals – something that has been largely absent from what discussion there has been by government of what this agenda means.  

But O’Brien also pointed out in his blog that government policies are often skewed against some areas. Our analysis of public spending per head across English regions confirms that this is true (although some of the inequality was reduced after 1997).

This raises big issues about public spending though. To ‘level-up’ all English regions to the same spending per head as in London would have cost about £72bn in 2017-18.

And the sort of symbolic ‘Whitehall moving North’ to Wolverhampton and Darlington are likely to have very limited impact on the big picture of civil service distribution.

Our historical analysis suggests the big movement out of London and the south east already happened in four decades from 1970 to 2010. There has been a slight reversal of this trend since 2010 (partly due to extra recruitment caused by Brexit) but there seems limited scope for big further migrations.

The really big issue, we would argue, which O’Brien failed to mention in his post last year, was any notion of levelling-up the distribution of power within England, and between London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

If anything, the recent initiatives like the Towns Fund have moved more power into Whitehall and Westminster as ministers get to ‘pick favourites’ for their largesse. There is certainly no hint of levelling-up the balance of power between Whitehall and town halls.

If Brexit, and especially the more recent emphasis on ‘sovereignty’, tells us anything it is that a sense of powerlessness was a key driver in the so-called ‘left behind’ areas.

Unless O’Brien’s ‘levelling-up’ reboot addresses some of these issues, we’ll be back here in another year asking ‘what was that all about?’

Read the most recent articles written by Colin Talbot and Carole Talbot - On the level: What does the government mean by levelling up?

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