‘Levelling up’ will remain an empty slogan unless Johnson de-centralises power from Westminster
Ifan Morgan Jones
BORIS BID TO LEVEL UP THE WORLD boomed the front page of the Daily Express this morning.
The hyperbole was telling, as the ‘levelling up’ slogan adopted by the UK Government has so far been a lot of shouting and repetition but very little done to bring it about.
It’s a slogan they’re clearly very keen on – it was also revealed over the weekend that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will become the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Perhaps the Prime Minister thinks that if he chants ‘levelling up’ like ‘Bloody Mary’ often enough in the mirror it will simply appear.
But the truth is that Boris Johnson doesn’t know how to level up Waunarlwydd let alone the world, and unless there’s a rapid change of plan, ‘levelling up’ will soon be deposited alongside ‘The Big Society’ and ‘Northern Powerhouse’ in the drawer marked ‘vague government slogans that never meant anything’.
It’s possible of course that the UK Government has no intention of levelling up anywhere and the slogan is itself a means of hiding that truth from their new ‘red wall’ northern seats until at least the next General Election.
However, it is also possible that they actually do genuinely want to do something about it. But the problem here is that Boris Johnson’s own political instincts serve as a barrier to that something happening.
Because ultimately the only way you will allow areas outside of London to level up is to devolve political power to those areas so that they can make informed decisions about how that can be done.
Different parts of the UK have different labour markets, they have different economic needs, they’re (obviously) in different locations. No one living and working in London is going to have the same know-how and commitment to levelling up Newcastle-upon-Tyne as someone living in that city.
The first step to levelling up an area, therefore, is to make it a real political objective tasked to someone answerable to the voters of that area. And that means high profile politicians held to account by an informed population.
A good example of that in England would be Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who has enough political power, a high enough public profile, and enough media scrutiny, to deliver but more importantly perhaps to have a need to deliver in order to retain his role.
However, we are told that Boris Johnson just isn’t keen on this. He sees the likes of Andy Burnham as a threat to his own authority. According to the Financial Times, the devolution agenda has now stalled completely at Westminster.
Instead, Westminster has turned to another plan which is to just hand out money from the centre, directly to local authorities. They have even completely bypassed the Welsh and Scottish Governments to do this.
Unsurprisingly, the result has been a complete lack of understanding of the kinds of support different communities actually require. Some of the poorest areas in Wales were given the least help by the Levelling Up Fund, while some of the richest areas in England were given the most. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.
Whether you mark that down as cock-up or conspiracy, the reality is that someone sitting in a department in Whitehall isn’t – and can’t be – informed enough to know whether a theatre in Chepstow or a new road in Bangor will unlock the greater economic potential.
The UK Government can do one of two things: levelling up, or pursue a ‘muscular unionist’ agenda of recentralising power at Westminster.
But they can’t do both. The UK is economically over-centralised because it is politically over-centralised. To reverse that economic over-centralisation, they need to give up some of that political power.
That is something that no UK Government will do of its own accord. It will just come up with silly wheezes such as rebranding the Department of Local Government the Department of Levelling Up, which does nothing practical to solve the problem.
Levelling up will never be driven from inside the Westminster square mile. Only sustained political pressure from outside Westminster can force their hand and bring about a Britain where economic and political power are spread evenly.