The results of an England-wide survey of councillors, conducted exclusively by New Statesman Spotlight, shows that at the local level elected Conservatives have no faith in the government’s ability to deliver on levelling up. Sixty-nine per cent of respondents said their areas had seen “no tangible benefit” from what was once billed as the government’s flagship agenda on regional equality, while over a third (35 per cent) described the project as “a success”.
Ahead of the local elections on 4 May, surveys were sent to every local authority in England to gauge councillors’ opinions on local government, levelling up and the highs and lows of Westminster and local politics. Full results will be published next week. Almost 700 responses (671) from individuals across the country were received, with just over a fifth (20.2 per cent) from the Conservative Party, and twice as many from Labour.
The results confirm what many have observed and interpreted as lost momentum behind the levelling-up project: 52 per cent of councillors say that commitment to regional equality has decreased since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister. Among Conservative councillors the figure is 28 per cent.
First launched by Boris Johnson in 2019, levelling up was at first touted as a way of consolidating the Conservative vote in the Red Wall areas of northern England and the Midlands. Johnson promised to reduce the wealth, productivity, health and investment gaps between the south-east and Britain’s “left behind” regions. Plans were vague initially. Levelling up was described as an “everything and nothing policy” by a parliamentary committee, and derided as a “slogan in search of a policy” by commentators. A £4.8bn fund was established for local authorities to bid into, but regional development experts described this sum as wholly inadequate to a challenge that was comparable in scale to the stimulus needed by the East German economy post-unification (around €2trn).
The Levelling Up white paper, published last year, was praised in some quarters for correctly diagnosing Britain’s geographical disparity problem – one of the widest in the developed world. But its solutions were nebulous and rehashed, and included many already-announced initiatives, such as infrastructure investment, new devolution agreements, rewriting Treasury spending rules, skills and apprenticeships policy, the relocation of Whitehall offices, a plethora of existing funding pots, and reallocating and reprioritising departmental budgets away from the capital.
Treasury worries about departmental over-spend were widely seen by experts and local government officials as acting as a blockage on levelling-up investment.
With the former Brexit negotiator David Frost calling for the government to reverse elements of the Scottish devolution settlement, the Prime Minister should take note that Whitehall’s most centralising and imperious tendencies do not go unnoticed. Our survey revealed that local Conservatives (71 per cent) widely believe that the government is in thrall to a “Whitehall knows best” mentality, and 70 per cent said local authorities could be trusted to make better decisions than Westminster’s politicians and civil servants.
The full results of our local government survey will be published online and in a Spotlight regional development supplement in next week’s New Statesman magazine.