Levelling up Britain: Slogan or solution?

Levelling up is a phrase synonymous with Boris Johnson’s government. It is the cornerstone of the prime minister’s policy agenda, and has been billed by the government as the answer to reducing social and economic inequality across the country.

Since 2019, the plan has been light on detail, leading to accusations from critics that it is lacking real policy substance and is more of a political slogan to sell to the government’s new red wall constituencies.

The arrival of the levelling up white paper has revealed the government’s hand. Ever since becoming the levelling up secretary in September 2021, Michael Gove has been tasked with finding the elusive answers to reducing inequality in Britain.

Announcing the white paper in the House of Commons, Gove said the government’s new strategy will “make opportunity more equal and to shift wealth and power decisively towards working people and their families.”

The government’s plan for levelling up is underpinned by 12 key targets it has set itself to achieve by 2030. Boris Johnson says these goals will help to “break the link between geography and destiny”.

The 12 missions, which include aiming to make pay, employment and productivity grow across the country, narrowing the health life expectancy gap and increasing R&D spending outside the south east by at least 40%, are key measuring indicators to help judge the success or failure of the government’s levelling up strategy.

There is also a key emphasis on shifting power to local leaders in England. Influenced by the successful leadership of mayors such as Andy Burnham and Ben Houchen, striking devolution deals in England’s different regions will be a priority for the government.

Do the Government’s plans finally address the regional disparities seen across the country?

Labour has already made clear its dissatisfaction with the government’s levelling up plan. Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy said: “Is this really it?

“They tell us to wait till 2030. But where have they been for the last 12 years?”

Centre for Cities’ Director of policy and research, Paul Swinney, says the missions set out in the levelling up white paper is encouraging.

“The intentions in terms of what’s set out [in the white paper] are pretty good.

“We’re talking about an issue that is 100 years in the making at least, so I think that tells us the magnitude of the problem, and it’s going to need quite significant funding to deal with this.”

The amount of money available to make levelling up a success is the biggest source of contention. Despite Micahel Gove’s upbeat tone about the new funds made available as part of last year’s spending review, the Treasury has so far been reluctant to throw its full weight behind the project.

The business committee chair, Darren Jones, says the lack of backing from Rishi Sunak is a major cause of concern.

“Where is the chancellor? I think we need to see the chancellor standing alongside Michael Gove and the prime minister on this and saying how he’s going to fund it.

“The chancellor seems to be missing in action once again.”

For Conservative MPs, the promise of levelling up may provide a much-needed source of good news to sell to their constituents, in what has been a bruising few months for the Party.

John Stevenson, the Conservative MP for Carlisle, says the government’s plans will take constituencies like his “to a different level.”

Stevenson said: “I think we’ve got to persuade Whitehall that actually, people making decisions at the local level is the right way forward and we’ve actually got to have confidence and trust in local leaders to deliver.

“We’ve got to cut the purse strings and cut the apron strings to a certain extent and allow local government, local leaders to flourish.”

Time will tell as to whether levelling up will provide a fresh solution to the age-old problem of reducing inequality in Britain. For Paul Swinney, the crucial task will be keeping future governments on board with the project.

“Whether it’ll be this government’s agenda, or it’ll be the next government’s agenda, and it’ll be the next government’s agenda after that, the crucial thing is, do we keep it at the top of the agenda or does it slip down again?