LONDON — A lot is riding on Boris Johnson’s ability to make Britain pretty again.
The British prime minister’s re-election depends, or so leading Conservatives say, on his ability to “level up” regions of England long neglected by Westminster. But first his government must agree amongst themselves what that means and so far it seems ministers are eying quick wins.
Almost two years after Johnson won a stunning electoral victory, his promise to offer new Conservative voters in England’s former industrial heartlands something beyond Brexit looks a bit thin. A global pandemic and the economic damage it brought stalled plans to “level up” these regions — or as Johnson put it in an early speech “unleashing the potential of the whole country; delivering opportunity across the entire nation.”
As much as he’s enjoyed saying it — 85 times in parliament since summer 2019 — Johnson’s struggled to define it.
All-too aware that the next election will shine a light on what he’s actually delivered for these former Labour-voting strongholds, Johnson’s brought in a fixer and re-named a whole department; Michael Gove now runs the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Gove’s first goal, according his ministers and officials, is to spell out what the government means by “leveling up” in a so-called white paper, a blueprint planned for September but delayed until next year. An official claimed the delay was simply because of the amount of domestic policy in the pipeline, but others think it underlines just how elusive consensus is proving to be, particularly in the face of a Treasury in penny-pinching mode.
So politically sensitive is Gove’s task, the document is being kept under lock and key, with one contributor saying civil servants are only allowed to read it one paragraph at a time.
Gove has already dropped hints about its likely focus, explaining that he thinks “leveling up” rests on improving four key areas: local leadership; living standards; public services; and “pride of place.”
Civil servants, MPs and government aides say there’s likely to be a heavy emphasis on the fourth pillar — sometimes referred to as “civic pride.”
Detractors in the civil service refer to the civic pride push disparagingly as the “hanging baskets” model of leveling up — focused on easier, cosmetic improvements to deprived areas while ducking bigger structural changes that might close regional divides. Ministers and aides in the department reject this as a false dichotomy.
“It’s a good department but it’s slow,” one 10 Downing Street aide said. “[Gove]’ll turbocharge it, just as he did [the environment department] Defra.”
Less than three years until the next election, the race is on.
‘Pride of place’
As well as Gove, Johnson’s also asked Neil O’Brien, an influential Tory MP, think tanker, and former Treasury aide, to advise him on “leveling up” and launched a task force to support him. Gove himself has brought in prominent figures such as former Bank of England economist Andy Haldane and experienced Cabinet Office official Sue Gray to give him added firepower.
Alongside the new name and crest for the department, civil servants have been graced with a new official font for presentations — imperial blue.
Early initiatives under the leveling up umbrella, such as the £3.6 billion towns fund investment pot, were accused of favoring Conservative-leaning areas and decried as crude “pork barrel politics” by the opposition. A rambling speech in the summer did little to dampen criticism that it’s a slogan without a policy plan.
A key advocate for efforts to boost civic pride is Danny Kruger, a Conservative MP and aide to Gove. He’s set out a wide-ranging manifesto that emphasizes the need for improvements to town centers, which could encourage “more neighborliness, more family time and a more local life.”
“[The white paper] will go as far as it can in terms of floating major policies that would underpin ‘leveling up’ without actually putting money in,” one No. 10 adviser said of the paper. “It will say something substantial on the cultural, social, local side.”
Critics on the opposition benches say the Conservatives have been here before. Darren Jones, the Labour MP who chairs the House of Commons business select committee, said he was concerned the government’s plans amount to a “rehash of David Cameron’s Big Society,” a briefly-fashionable 2010’s promise to rejuvenate communities by empowering volunteers and civic society — at the same time as austerity policies kicked in.
The so-called big society, Jones said, was “always a fiction, because it said, ‘hey, we’re gonna cut all of the money, but you can do it in your communities as volunteers.’”
Yet it’s not hard to see why the government — counting the eye-watering cost of the pandemic on the public finances — might favor this approach.
As one former Johnson adviser puts it: “The Treasury tends to be quite good at throwing money out the door or getting money back in. It’s less persuaded by big long-term infrastructure projects — things where there’s not going to be a result for a very long time.”
Longer-term ambitions to improve productivity and people’s life chances are, observers say, much more difficult for the state to crack.
“The department has been scattering baubles for local government,” said Nicola Headlam, chief economist at business advisory firm Red Flag Alert and a former head of cities and local growth in Gove’s department. “Meanwhile the infrastructure for strategic economic development — the big stuff — is untethered and subject to ministerial whim.”
Eye on an election
Rejuvenating England’s neglected high streets may also pay clearer dividends at the ballot box. High streets featured heavily when research agency Public First asked voters about their leveling up priorities, as did skills and creating local jobs — while the more abstract concept of “productivity” was at the bottom.
There is room, too, for the government to make a link between civic pride and issues of law and order. The same research found strong support for getting people who commit crimes to clean graffiti and pick up litter.
Rachel Wolf, founding partner at Public First and adviser on the 2019 Conservative manifesto, stresses that the hard stuff is “more contested” in policy terms. “If you wanted to, say, clean up the graffiti in town, it’s not that hard to figure out how you would do it. If you want to change private sector investment in research and development, it’s less obvious how you do that.”
Conservative MPs in seats which turned blue for the first time in 2019 are keenly aware of this. Simon Fell, MP for Barrow-in-Furness, says bluntly: “If we don’t breathe fresh life into high streets, tidy up backstreets, and give people pride in their communities once again, it will be hard to convince them that lending us their vote was worth it.”
A trend towards these kind of short-term, deliverable projects is already visible. When Johnson recently unveiled the government’s rail plan — axing two long-promised upgrades for the North of England — he was explicit about the trade-off. “Those who [demand we stick to the old plan] are, in effect, condemning the North and the East Midlands to get nothing for 20 years. Leveling up cannot wait that long.”
Freeports, once a pet project of the chancellor and sold as a key benefit of Britain’s post-Brexit future, also appear to have been scaled down. According to one Whitehall official, opportunities to maximize impact on tax and customs were “sacrificed” for the sake of “getting something — anything — live this year.”
Giving away power
While the Treasury and Conservative election strategists may be drawn towards improving town centers, the long gestation of the white paper has raised hopes it will deliver a more sweeping vision for “leveling up.”
It has been a longstanding criticism of central government the allocation of money to deprived communities has not been matched by any new powers for local leaders.
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership — set up by former Chancellor George Osborne with a focus on boosting the North of England — said the U.K. needs to “reinvent local government” if the agenda is to work in the long-term.
He warned that “if local councils don’t have the power to raise money to pay for services they will just deal with the symptoms of economic failure, not the causes.”
But Johnson’s Conservative Party is divided on how to proceed, with some MPs keen to see more devolution in the form of county mayors, while others are reluctant to see mayors strengthened.
Pro-devolution members of the Conservative Party’s Northern Research Group have lobbied Gove as the white paper draws nearer, arguing that handing more tax-raising powers to local leaders is a plan in tune with, not against, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s fiscally conservative instincts.
On the more cautious side are Tory MPs whose seats are near to large Labour-held cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, where big-name local politicians have often caused trouble for the government.
Gove has hinted at the need for his department to evolve beyond a clearing house through which local government bids for central government money, fueling the expectation of some substantial devolution deals in the white paper.
He’s also keen to ensure all the disparate strands of Whitehall work in unison. His new super-ministry will be empowered to “bang heads together,” two department officials said, with proposals for it to direct the regional work of other ministries.
Skills and education are expected to form another big part of the plan, alongside the ambition for a single coherent definition of “leveling up” and a set of metrics so it can be consistently discussed and measured.
Yet with the government now firmly in its midterm, and with eyes fixed on the next election, Johnson will inevitably be tempted to reach for quick wins. Real change may take time and money — but the hanging baskets are easier to reach.
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