Devolution drive is key to levelling up, says PM

Flagship speech sets out “county deals” as MPs pledge to hold government’s feet to fire on progress
Photo Gov.UK

By Richard Johnstone

16 Jul 2021

Boris Johnson has pledged to devolve more powers across England as part of the government’s pledge to level up the country.

In a speech where he said that improved local and regional leadership would be “the ketchup of catch-up”, the prime minister said that the government planned to agree new deals with counties to take devolution beyond the city regions with metro mayors.

Under the plans, the rest of England will be offered the same powers as the current 10 metro mayors, leading to greater local control over areas like transport, skills and economic support.

However, any new deals will be “bespoke to the needs of individual places” according to No.10, and may not include single figures like directly-elected mayors.

“We will not be proceeding with a one size fits all template,” Johnson said. “One possibility is a directly elected mayor for individual counties but there are other possibilities. We could devolve power for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses. So my offer to you – and I am talking to all those who see a role for yourselves in this local leadership – come to us, come to Neil O’Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services.”

O’Brien is the Conservative MP who has been named prime minister Boris Johnson’s levelling up adviser.

Alongside the devolution plans, the prime minister also set out four further policy areas that he said would be included in the forthcoming levelling up white paper, which is being developed by a dedicated unit in the Cabinet Office.

These include:

  • Focus on growing the private sector by creating the conditions for long-term growth and productivity;
  • Invest in infrastructure and connectivity;
  • Ensure that people have access to good public services, and the skills and training needed to get good jobs; and
  • Improve the quality of life in communities through cutting crime and regenerating towns and high streets

There was no mention in the speech of plans to move civil servants out of London, despite this previously being identified as a key plank of the plan.

Johnson acknowledged that “this is a huge undertaking that many governments have debated about and dabbled in before and though there have been some successes the overall results are disappointing”.

He said that levelling up “can only be achieved with a strong and dynamic wealth creating economy”, with a “catalytic role for government”. However, he said this required consistency. “In the last 40 years we have had 40 different schemes or bodies to boost local or regional growth – we had the Abercrombie plan in London, the new towns, the economic development committees, the urban regeneration corporations, the new deal for communities, the regional development agencies, and yet none of these initiatives have been powerful enough to deal with the long term secular trends.”

Ahead of the publication of the white paper, Johnson also used the speech to set out 15 new towns deals (for Birkenhead, Bloxwich, Blyth, Crewe, Darwen, Dudley, Grays, Millom, Nelson, Newhaven, Runcorn, St Helens, Stainforth, Tilbury and Todmorden) that will allow for extra investment in local economies, bringing the total agreed to 101.

Following the speech, the influential Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs, many of whom represent seats first won by Johnson in 2019, said they would hold the PM’s “feet to the fire” over his levelling up promises.

Richard Holden, Conservative MP for North West Durham – a key “red-wall” seat – who is a spokesperson for the group, said: “There’s a lot still to do but the fact the government's even been pushing it despite Covid-19 shows they want to do it.

"But I tell you now, me and the rest of the Northern Research Group will be holding their feet to the fire to make sure they actually deliver.”

He said there would be "no excuse" not to focus on the economic aspect of "levelling up" as the country moves out of the pandemic.

“I genuinely believe the PM wants to deliver this but our job is to make sure he and the rest of the government see it as their absolute mission to deliver it,” said Holden.

Kate Proctor contributed to this story

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