Levelling up policy a ‘work in progress’, admits Michael Gove

Levelling up secretary Michael Gove has admitted that the government’s flagship plan to address regional inequality is a “work in progress”.

Speaking to the Financial Times, the levelling up, housing and communities secretary referenced the Covid pandemic and the Ukraine war as reasons why the plan had yet to yield full results. 

The phrase “levelling up” was first deployed in the Conservative’s 2019 election manifesto, which stated that a Boris Johnson-led government “will use this investment prudently and strategically to level up every part of the United Kingdom, while strengthening the ties that bind it together”.

Asked about the success of the policy by the FT, Gove said: “You know, if I’m in the middle of building a cathedral, you might say, ‘well some of it looks great but the rest of it is just a mess’ . . . but that’s because we are still constructing it. You’ve got to dream great if you want to achieve anything”. 

He added: “I think voters recognise that you can’t secure transformation instantly but they do also recognise how much has been done in significant parts of the country”.

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Commenting further on the successes of levelling up, Gove hailed the extension of devolution in England since the last general as “the biggest change to local government since 1880 under the Lord Salisbury government”.

He added: “Across government, there has been that big buy-in”. 

“Critically, the department which is often depicted as being the most sceptical in this area is the Treasury and yet … in the Budget it was significant that [chancellor] Jeremy Hunt referenced levelling up throughout.”

Michael Gove was first appointed to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department when it was constituted in September 2021. It was previously called the Housing, Communities and Local Government Department before the change was made in order to give the Conservatives’ 2019 election promise added prominence. 

Gove held the post of secretary of state at the department until 6 July when he was sacked by then-PM Johnson for purported disloyalty. 

Under prime minister Rishi Sunak, Gove was appointed to the role again on 25 October 2022. In the meantime, the post had been held by Greg Clark (July 2022 – September 2022) and Sir Simon Clarke (September 2022 – October 2022). 

As secretary of state, Gove held primary responsibility for drawing up a levelling up white paper, an attempt by the government to turn a campaigning slogan into a plan of action by setting out key targets.

The document published in February 2022 set 12 “missions” aimed at closing chronic regional inequalities by tackling areas such as education, skills, wellbeing, local pride, housing and health. 

The government also set up a Towns Fund and Levelling-Up Fund through which councils had to make competitive bids.

In September last year, the Institute for Government think tank published a report accusing ministers of failing to show leadership on its flagship levelling up plan, measuring success on its “missions”.

It said that “progress on levelling up has been undermined by the reduced momentum and political drive from the centre since July 2022” after Johnson stepped down as prime minister.

Both Sunak and his predecessor Liz Truss had “deprioritised” levelling up and “the agenda has stalled,” the report warned.

Labour has sought to put the government’s inability to deliver on levelling up at the heart of its local elections campaign, with Keir Starmer accusing ministers of having “strangled levelling up at birth”.

In a speech last month at the Labour Party’s local elections campaign launch, Starmer said that the past 14 years have been frustrating for him due to the “countless opportunities” that were missed to empower working people.

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