Levelling up – all things to all people but nothing for anyone?

It was, perhaps, indicative of how this administration operates that, on Tuesday night in the House of Lords, the Minister responding on behalf of the Government following the Statement on Levelling Up had managed to find time to carry out a word count on the White Paper but hadn’t actually found time to read the Technical Annex.

It’s that sort of document, sprawling across multiple ministries, proposing all manner of good things but with a lack of precision or, equally importantly, funding, to make any of it realistic. Indeed, in some cases, the dependencies are already in trouble.

I offer three examples;

Mission 3: By 2030, local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing.

I lived in inner South London for many years, with five bus routes within 400 yards of my front door, connecting me to Central London and the City, with buses running as frequently as every 5-6 minutes during the day and night buses too. I now live in rural Suffolk, where the nearest scheduled bus stop is a forty-five minute walk away, and those buses run half-hourly, Monday to Saturday, ceasing at 6.30 p.m.

I don’t expect the difference to be bridged (even partly) and, as it turns out, the Government don’t either, for buried in the small print is the phrase “… rural towns, which will need to measure only the relevant aspects of “London standards” such as reliability”. In other words, no requirement to run more buses, just to make sure that those we have actually run – which they mostly do anyway.

Mission 5: By 2030, the number of primary school children achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths will have significantly increased. In England, this will mean 90% of children will achieve the expected standard, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst performing areas will have increased by over a third.

Bear in mind that, for a child leaving primary education in 2030, they’ll be starting infant school next year. In the meantime, the Department of Education is going to have to resource a school system that already struggles to recruit and retain sufficient teaching staff.

Mission 7: By 2030, the gap in Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE) between local areas where it is highest and lowest will have narrowed, and by 2035 HLE will rise by five years.

The Government has just announced its aspirations for reducing NHS waiting lists, expecting that, by 2024, waiting lists will peak, and waiting times for those requiring treatment will not fall below a year until 2025. Given that the NHS constitution promises treatment within eighteen weeks, and pandemic-related stress continues to burnout doctors, nurses and other key NHS staff, it is not unrealistic to expect life expectancy in some areas to continue to stagnate, if not fall.

Don’t get me wrong, the aims of the Levelling Up White Paper are entirely laudable – there’s nothing in the various missions that many people could object to. The problem is that, having demonised the public sector for so long, this Government is now reliant on civil servants, local government officials and the rest of the public sector’s staff to deliver its key goals. That will mean a fundamentally new approach to them, one that I don’t see any evidence of a commitment to currently.

Worse still, changing the way that services are delivered to reflect the missions is not something that happens instantaneously. You need to recruit new staff, encourage innovation to find new ways of addressing the challenges that already exist. That isn’t solely about money but, with budgets still under pressure, and inflation cutting salaries in real terms, one would have to be almost fancifully optimistic to believe that the Levelling Up White Paper is much more than a promise of the possibility of jam at some point in the distant future.

And sadly, like most of Boris Johnson’s promises, it merely exists to buy time whilst the Conservatives pray that something will turn up.

* Mark Valladares is a member of the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils, writing in a personal capacity.

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  • nigel hunter 9th Feb '22 - 10:37am

    Waiting for something to turn up? They will have to put more money where their mouth is. This will go with actually saying that to work in public services is a good thing.For with good services you have a better,happy,work force, knowing that that can cut down on lost work hours to start with.l

  • Steve Trevethan 9th Feb '22 - 11:35am

    Despite its lack of real funding, it’s devious pretensions and its other shortcomings, might “Levelling Up” have put socialism back into the Overton Window?

  • Nick Collins 9th Feb '22 - 3:54pm

    Cheer up. With Jacob Rees-Mogg in charge of blue passports and engraving crowns on beer glasses, from now on all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

  • The healthy life expectancy may be correlated with area. The main causes of low healthy life spans are though directly related to poverty. We need to eliminate poverty and there would be a chance of removing these disparities. We could then hope to reduce expenditure on chronic ill health, increase expenditure on research and increase expenditure on education for healthy living for age groups.
    There would still be those who if, for example, there were a pandemic would think it clever to attend parties without social distancing or wearing masks.
    But no one would be that stupid, would they?

  • Tom Harney 17th Feb ’22 – 10:44pm
    There would still be those who if, for example, there were a pandemic would think it clever to attend parties without social distancing or wearing masks.
    But no one would be that stupid, would they?

    Not if they’d just recovered from whatever pathogen had caused such a pandemic and were therefore immune, or were socialising with the same people they’d been working in close proximity to all week.

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