Gove must realise that true levelling up is about people not places

UK politics & policy updates

The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

For a government that specialises in four syllable slogans — “Get Brexit Done”, “Build Back Better”, “Global Britain” — the phrase “Levelling Up” has suddenly taken on a new urgency. Having left the EU and survived the pandemic, Boris Johnson now needs to turn the notion of narrowing regional inequalities into something more than warm words and opportunism. 

Two years ago a Cabinet minister told me that tackling the nation’s unequal productivity is the “animating force of this government”. And so it should be. The UK’s economy is more regionally unbalanced than any other large wealthy country, and Covid-19 has amplified the injustice. But it’s not at all clear what the government thinks should be done to revive Blackpool, or Scunthorpe. Those who have sat in Whitehall meetings have despaired at the lack of imagination beyond centrally controlled funding for bus routes and railways, and what looks suspiciously like a pork-barrel fund for sprucing up high streets. An awful lot of money could be wasted, as everyone frenziedly tries to second-guess Johnson: councils are pitching their pet projects to get funds, and government departments are inventing “Levelling Up” initiatives to please Number 10, without knowing what they are trying to solve. 

Unless someone gets a grip, the odds of pulling off something meaningful by the next election are low. But finally, a formidable team is being assembled. Michael Gove, the only member of the 2010 cabinet to remain in a top post, has been appointed to lead a renamed levelling up and housing department. Some saw his move from the Cabinet Office as a demotion. In fact, Boris Johnson has put his electoral fate in the hands of the man who scuppered his 2016 leadership bid. 

Gove is Johnson’s best hope of making sense out of this sprawling agenda. He is a seasoned reformer, by far the most effective minister in the Cabinet, who tackles problems with intellectual analysis and a cheerful insistence on facing-down vested interests. Three successive prime ministers have found him indispensable — even Theresa May, whose loathing for him was matched only by his hatred of her. He has a zeal for combating the forces of inertia, and an assumption that every ministerial job could be his last — he got the Education Reform Act through parliament only 77 days after becoming Education Secretary in 2010 — and his policies have endured. He has made many enemies, especially in the teaching profession, but he also has many quiet fans in the civil service, including the Treasury, and former aides dotted around Number 10 and the Cabinet Office. 

Gove has wasted no time. His new team includes Neil O’Brien, the Hanborough MP and former aide to George Osborne, Andy Haldane, the former Bank of England economist and labour market expert who has criticised the government’s over-reliance on infrastructure, and Danny Kruger, the Tory MP who believes that families and communities matter as much to life chances as bricks and mortar. 

All four share a conviction that Whitehall is over-centralised. This was part of the agenda behind the creation of the Policy Exchange think-tank, of which Michael Gove was the founding chairman and Neil O’Brien the second director (I sat on the board). This matters, because true levelling up can’t be delivered from a desk in Whitehall. Johnson will have to balance his reluctance to cede ground to the left, against the need to devolve more power to mayors and councils. I wouldn’t be surprised to see government give some councils full control of business rates and more powers over, for example, health and care. But it should also empower the faith groups, charities and social enterprises who see the crime, the hopelessness and the struggles first-hand. 

Real levelling up is about people not places. The current language of place — north versus south — risks alienating southern voters who fear their money is being funnelled to white elephants elsewhere; and it overlooks the fact that disadvantage is not confined to the Red Wall, nor ubiquitous within it. You can also throw money at infrastructure and skills without having lasting effects. In the late 90s, Tony Blair’s New Deal for Communities spent about £2.5bn in similar parts of the country, with some success; but with little lasting impact on prosperity, health or education.

The missing ingredient could be the “social capital” made famous by the Harvard professor Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone”, which tracked the decline of American clubs and youth groups. “Economic data can only take us so far in understanding regional disparities” Haldane said two years ago in a speech in Newcastle. “Social data and social narratives are crucial too”. When Haldane defined “left behind” to include not just low earnings but few parks, playgrounds or football clubs, he found a much higher correlation with voting Brexit. 

Health also matters. A boy born in Richmond upon Thames in Southern England today can expect eighteen more years of healthy life than one born in Blackpool in the North — and there’s an eight-year gap in life expectancy within affluent and deprived parts of places such as York. We are seeing an epidemic of chronic disease linked to poor housing, poor diets and insecure work. Economists assume that health will improve if growth picks up, but sustained medical help is also needed. 

Can Gove and Johnson pull it off? It will take more than bus routes and hanging baskets; but the prime minister knows that. And the stakes are high. If “Levelling Up” remains a platitude, that four-syllable phrase could soon be replaced with four letter words.



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