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2 February 2022

Michael Gove’s Levelling Up plan looks suspiciously familiar

The central plank of Johnsonism has been begged, borrowed and stolen from elsewhere.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In the 2019 general election campaign Boris Johnson essentially promised voters his government would do two things: Get Brexit Done, and Level Up.

Now that the former is tangled in the weeds of the Northern Ireland protocol, attention has turned to the latter — with Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, finally releasing the long-awaited white paper describing the government’s plans.

[See also: Levelling up won’t save Boris Johnson]

Unfortunately for Gove, who has a reputation in Whitehall as an iconoclast and reformer, it doesn’t look like he’s succeeded in pioneering anything particularly new.

Firstly, there’s a lack of new funding in the plan, which simply pulls together a number of previous spending commitments in 12 national “missions”.

For example, the £1.8bn for building on brownfield sites had already been announced by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, in his October budget last year. Similarly, the £1.5bn Levelling Up Home Building Fund was first announced in 2020. The £230m going towards grassroots football was established as far back as 2016. The list goes on.

While repurposing and refining certain funds according to policy priorities is not unusual in Whitehall, the lack of extra cash may be a problem in itself.

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Germany spent €2trn levelling up East Germany following reunification,” said a spokesperson for the Centre for Cities think tank. “Therefore, headline-grabbing announcements will mean little if they are only backed by a £5bn fund here and a £4bn fund there.”

Only £100m of the government’s plan is described as “new” funding. It will go towards trying to turn Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Glasgow city region into centres of innovation (like the Stanford-Silicon Valley model).

Many of the ideas in the plan are also recycled. A number of the 12 missions are rehashed from Theresa May’s 2017 Industrial Strategy, calculates Darren Jones, the chairman of the of the Business Select Committee and Labour MP for Bristol North West.

The New Statesman finds at least eight levelling up ideas appear to be borrowed from the previous paper:

Levelling Up: “By 2030, pay, employment and productivity will have risen in every area of the UK.”

Industrial Strategy: “Good jobs and greater earning power for all.”

Levelling Up: “Domestic public investment in Research & Development outside the Greater South East will increase.”

Industrial Strategy: “Invest more in research and development… We must do more to grow innovation strengths in every part of the UK.”

Levelling Up: “Local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London.”

Industrial Strategy: “Our transformational projects, such as High Speed 2, will offer opportunities for local development across their routes… [and will] enable faster services between cities in the north, including Liverpool and Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and York, and from these cities to the East Midlands and London.”

Levelling Up: “Nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for the majority of the population.”

Industrial Strategy: “In addition to becoming a world leader in 5G, we need to provide reliable full-fibre connectivity to our towns, cities and rural areas.”

Levelling Up: “The number of primary school children achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths will have significantly increased.”

Industrial Strategy: “We will take action to ensure that more students leave education at age 18 with a basic level of numeracy… We are growing our successful maths hubs and setting up a new network of English hubs in areas of weak early development in language and literacy.”

Levelling Up: “The number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will have significantly increased in every area of the UK.”

Industrial Strategy: “A new adult digital skills entitlement to support basic training and our new National Retraining Scheme will help people re-skill and up-skill as the economy changes, including as a result of automation.”

Levelling Up: “Retention payments to schools in these areas ensuring they can retain the best teachers.”

Industrial Strategy: “Provide £42m to pilot a Teacher Development Premium. This will test the impact of a £1,000 budget for high-quality professional development for teachers working in areas that have fallen behind.”

Levelling Up: “Local Skills Improvement Plans will be rolled out with funding across England, giving local employer bodies and stakeholders a statutory role in planning skills training in their area, to better meet local labour market needs.”

Industrial Strategy: “Skills Advisory Panels… will enable mayors and Local Enterprise Partnerships to support employers, education providers and local government in identifying current and future local skills needs shaping the provision and funding of post-age 16 education and training and careers guidance”

Commandeering ideas from previous governments does not mean poor policy. Theresa May’s domestic agenda, after all, may have needed another lease of life, having been hamstrung by the battle over Brexit.

Yet by the time of May’s Industrial Strategy, there had already been three industrial strategies announced in the past decade (Peter Mandelson’s 2008 new activism, Vince Cable’s 2012 industrial strategy and Sajid Javid’s 2015 industrial approach). This level of churn has a human cost. For example, the Institute for Government calculates that in the three decades to 2017, 28 major pieces of legislation relating to further education were led by 48 secretaries of state — leaving students and employers “with a confusing and ever-changing set of qualifications” and no certainty about the value of those qualifications in the near future.

If people feel yet again that they’re the subject of slogans rather than substance, this betrayal will sting the most in the constituencies that “lent” Boris Johnson their vote in 2019.

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