The UK Government’s levelling up plan is a pile of piffle – its instincts is to centralise power, not give it away
Ifan Morgan Jones
The UK Government is one of the most over-centralised democratic nations on earth. It’s over-centralised politically, culturally and financially.
If this Levelling Up paper is to be welcomed it’s as a recognition of that fact. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove speaks of the “historic injustice” that “as some areas have flourished, others have been left in a cycle of decline”.
But in terms of dealing with the problem, he’s bringing a pea shooter to a bazooka fight. There is nothing in 350 pages of re-heated jargon that is going to overturn decades of drawing more and more power into Westminster and Whitehall.
There’s no new funding here and the overall budget of £2.6bn to be spent on the Shared Prosperity Fund is trifling in UK-wide context. That’s under half what the UK Government overspent on PPE in England during the pandemic.
It would take trillions to bring about any serious ‘levelling up’ of the UK outside of London, especially in those post-industrial communities that have suffered the greatest neglect.
But more than that, it will take a complete change of mindset. That’s particularly true of this government whose ‘muscular unionism’ has seen more, not less, power drawn to the centre.
It’s ironic that while the paper talks of a historic devolution of power within England, it also intends to completely bypass the Welsh and Scottish governments when handing out local funding.
This is portrayed as giving greater power to local councils and MPs. But crucially, of course, they are not the people deciding whether they get the money or not.
Real devolution of power would be to give them the money and let them decide what they want to do with it. Asking them to beg for money then have someone in Whitehall make the decision about whether they get it or not isn’t putting power in the hands of local communities.
Ultimately, the only thing that will ‘level up’ the country is a determination by Westminster and Whitehall to let go of the reins of power.
That would involve giving the regions of England and the nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland money based on a fair means-tested system and allowing them, without constant interference, to decide how it is spent.
Only by trusting in that local expertise would we, over decades, see at least an attempt to return to some kind of economic parity across the country.
This isn’t that plan. It’s an attempt to meet a manifesto commitment by hosing us down with jargon until everyone is too confused and bored to argue back.
That this document seems to have been rushed out as part of an attempt to distract attention from Prime Minister’s Boris Johnson’s political troubles is also telling.
The nations and regions of the UK aren’t just judged to be less important than Westminster, but even the career of one man.
‘Levelling Up’ is this government’s ‘Big Society’ – a slogan much repeated to sound embracing and fill empty space on the radio and in articles but which will, I suspect, end up having very little practical impact.
For a real indication of the direction of travel we should look instead towards the upcoming Brexit Freedoms Bill.
This bill would allow No 10 to “shortcut” the scrapping of EU regulations without primary legislation.
In other words, it would allow the UK Government to bypass even Westminster – let alone devolved governments – when it wants to make changes.
I predict that there will be no 350 pages of waffle when it comes to implementing that change. Which shows us what this UK Government’s political instincts really are.
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