At the end of 2019, after Boris Johnson won a landslide election, he promised the British public that 2020 would be a “fantastic year”. Little did he, nor anyone else for that matter, know that the next 12 months would bring a global pandemic and the worst economic recession this country has experienced in centuries. If 2020 was fantastic, it was in a truly different sense of the word to what the Prime Minister had intended.
Johnson might have more easily predicted one of the running themes of his time as Prime Minister since coronavirus hit: tensions between local government and Westminster. An unequal economy and calls for more devolution long predate his win. After the December vote, given the Conservatives’ success in the so-called “Red Wall” of former Labour seats, Johnson promised to “level up” the country. This government would redress regional imbalances and chronic underinvestment.
Since those pledges, the mood from the regions has remained one of criticism. From Greater Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham challenging the government on coronavirus measures, to the establishment of the Northern Research Group led by the former Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry, the message is that the government needs to share more power with local leaders, and that levelling-up rhetoric has yet to translate into meaningful policy.
If post-pandemic economic recovery is a chance to address those regional inequalities, few think the government has truly seized the opportunity. This is despite initiatives such as the £4bn Levelling Up Fund or Rishi Sunak’s plans to move thousands of civil service jobs outside London by 2030.
As our survey of UK local councillors reveals most respondents think that “levelling up” is little more than a slogan. The vast majority don’t expect the government to deliver on its promise to level up the economy before the next election.
Local elections take place next month. Whatever the results, Westminster needs to show local government representatives that they are equal partners in the UK’s pandemic recovery. From surviving the economic downturn, to moving to a more sustainable model of growth, to ensuring our cities facilitate good public health, the government’s repair agenda would only stand to benefit.
This article originally appeared in the Spotlight supplement on regional development. You can download the full edition here.