Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Quickfire
20 January

“Levelling up” was always a farcical vanity project

It was the latest iteration of Boris Johnson's monument-building – funnelling money into headline-grabbing developments.

By Sam Bright

The government’s release of its latest tranche of “levelling up” funding has brought the project its annual moment in the spotlight.

The headline statistics are difficult to sugar-coat. The south-east of England will be receiving £210m from this latest round, compared with £108m for the north-east. Rishi Sunak’s own, well-off constituency of Richmond in North Yorkshire will also receive a heap of cash (as it did in the fund’s first round) while, in England, 52 Tory constituencies benefit, more than twice as many as those represented by Labour MPs.

The GDP per capita of the south-east was £35,361 before the pandemic – nearly 50 per cent higher than the north-east. This is why regional investment is desperately needed in the UK and why the government’s approach is so disheartening, although entirely predictable.

The UK is the most regionally unequal country in the developed world. As Professor Philip McCann, from the University of Sheffield, says: “In many ways, the economic geography of the UK is reminiscent of a much poorer country at an earlier stage of economic development.”

This has been depicted in the news through the slow degeneration of the high street, precarious gig jobs supplanting well-paid unionised work, eventually culminating in the Brexit vote – the political revolt that propelled “levelling up” onto the glossy pages of Boris Johnson’s 2019 Conservative manifesto. But for all of Johnson’s ornate rhetoric, and for all the attention applied – belatedly – by the Westminster Village to Britain’s forgotten places, levelling up was always bound to fail.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

As Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings said in an interview with New York magazine, the former prime minister fantasised – and probably still fantasises – about the creation of “monuments to him in an Augustine fashion”. This has been seen throughout Johnson’s career, which has been littered with (largely failed) plans to build markers to his shallow political legacy – from London’s Garden Bridge, to his desire to see London Bridge station decorated with gargoyles, to his dream of an overpass across the Irish Sea.

Content from our partners
The truth about employability
Why we need a Minister for Citizen Experience
Look at the person, not the CV

Levelling up was merely the latest iteration of Johnson’s monument-building – a project that has been taken up with waning enthusiasm by his successors. The essence of levelling up is vanity, from its origin to its implementation. Its purpose is to inject money – relatively little money, in comparison to overall government spending – into headline-grabbing infrastructure and redevelopment projects. The sort of things that look great on the cover of a Conservative election leaflet, featuring a beaming, Barbour-clad candidate.

Meanwhile day-to-day spending on essential local services – the boring, bread-and-butter activities of local government – has been and is still being heavily eroded. As Zoë Billingham of IPPR North has pointed out, the north experienced £346 in funding cuts per person in the decade to 2018-19 while this second scattering of levelling up funding is equivalent to just £22 per person in Yorkshire, £41 in the north-west and £47 in the north-east.

Barnsley, which bore the brunt of the first era of austerity, experienced a reduction in funding of around £145m, or £688 for every resident. Now, through the second round of the levelling up fund, it has been promised £10m for a new outdoor activity park. Knowing the character of my fellow Yorkshiremen and women, and their feeling towards betrayal, I’d recommend that Johnson spends his newfound wealth on a suitably convincing disguise, if he decides to attend its grand opening.

[See also: Where next for levelling up?]