Spotlight Leader: A slogan that needs substance

 What does the government’s “levelling up” agenda really mean?

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At the end of October, more than 50 Conservative MPs, led by the former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, delivered a stinging critique of Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda. The letter from the newly formed Northern Research Group, called for a roadmap out of lockdown and expressed concern “that the cost of Covid” could mean “northern constituencies like ours will be left behind”.

It was a far cry from the 2019 general election, when the Conservatives swept to a surprisingly resounding victory, taking seats Labour had held for decades. Of the 41 MPs named in the letter, many were from former “Red Wall” seats.

Read more: “The UK is an unequal nation”: Local leaders on the “levelling up” agenda

Stark divisions between Westminster and “local leaders” have become a defining feature of the pandemic. While the government talks about the need to deal with coronavirus and protect the economy, the likes of Greater Manchester’s metro mayor, Andy Burnham, have been vocal about the reality of the challenge for their local areas, and what support they need from the Chancellor Rishi Sunak.  

The regions need investment in transport infrastructure, skills, and education to address disparities – the UK is one of the most regionally imbalanced economies in the industrialised world. But local leaders also want the “government to back us and give us the tools we need to deliver,” as Julia Goldsworthy, director of economy and strategy for West Midlands Combined Authority, says in our leaders’ symposium.

Read more: How trees can help rebalance the economy

But the question remains: what does levelling up actually mean? As Bridget Phillipson, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury points out (see pages 8-9), there is an opportunity now to add substance to the concept.

Given the ravages of the pandemic, and the parallel catastrophe of the climate crisis, levelling up must incorporate the UK’s transformation into a sustainable, clean energy economy. And, as the final report from Lord Kerslake’s UK2070 Commission made clear, it must truly empower local leaders to grow their local economies. As Goldsworthy says: “We can’t afford to wait.”

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on regional development. Click here for the full edition.

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