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24 January 2023

Where next for levelling up?

Conservatives are fuming over “begging bowl” culture, while Labour waits in the wings with its own version of the plan.

By Freddie Hayward

It’s fair to say last week’s announcement of the regions and projects that would benefit from round two of the levelling up fund did not go as the government hoped. The whole system was pilloried as inefficient and unfair, but there seemed to be more animated defence of the prime minister getting caught not wearing a seat belt. Why did councils have to compete with one another to secure funding? Why wasn’t funding devolved to the local level where people knew how best to spend it? Why did funds remain in Whitehall while inflation ate into the ability of councils to accomplish their bids?

Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands and an influential voice on the issue within the party, did not hold back. He said: “This episode is another example as to why Whitehall’s bidding and begging bowl culture is broken… I cannot understand why the levelling up funding money was not devolved for local decision makers to decide on what’s best for their areas.”

Government by committee

In front of the Levelling Up Select Committee yesterday Dehenna Davison, a minister in the department, had to address some of those criticisms. She said the government was trying to move away from competitive funding. It seems a little late for that. Most of the levelling up fund has now been allocated. The government says it’s committed to the third round of bidding for the levelling up fund but hasn’t said when that will happen. There may not be enough time before the next election. 

A new Lisa life

In a speech to the Institute for Government last Tuesday Lisa Nandy fleshed out Labour’s version of levelling up. The key is decentralisation. Labour’s proposed Take Back Control Bill would flip the presumption of power, meaning Whitehall would have a legal duty to explain why communities don’t have certain powers. Nandy also said Labour would replace the government’s levelling up missions – which she argued were too vague to deliver – with an independent advisory council to measure Labour’s presumably less vague aims.

There was talk last week that the government would ditch the phrase “levelling up”. “Gauging up” or “stepping up” were suggested as alternatives. Beyond the fact the government would have to rename the Levelling Up Department, this would also lose the admittedly small but steadily rising name recognition of “levelling up”. That’s less of a problem for Labour: “take back control”, which it has adopted, is a bit more memorable.

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Whatever it’s called, the government’s levelling up agenda was a promise to redress the geographic inequality in the UK. If voters don’t think the government has fulfilled that promise somehow, the political benefit for the government will probably be negative. Polling from YouGov last week found that in only four local authorities do people think their areas have generally improved. While in 215 local authorities people thought the area had stayed the same, in as many as 142 council areas people thought the area had generally declined. Another £1bn from the levelling up fund is unlikely to change those perceptions before the next election.

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This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Labour has public’s backing for its election platform]

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