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  1. The Staggers
20 January 2023

“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.

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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.

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?]

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