Rome and Jericho – Are Gove’s Levelling Up plans Byzantine?

On Wednesday, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up – he used to be Secretary of State for Growing Up – Michael Gove, published the long awaited Levelling Up white paper. There is every hint that this policy paper was rushed out to distract from the ongoing tribulations of the prime minister. It includes paragraphs copied and pasted from Wikipedia. It mentions Jericho three times, ancient Rome twice and modern day Shropshire (where I am a councillor) just once. It also mentions Byzantine, which might be a good description of the white paper.

Michael Gove has responded to Shropshire’s complaints saying we must have an elected mayor before he will part with any money. This is yet another example of how Westminster politicians profess to support giving more power to local areas, while dictating how they operate democratically. As Baroness Cavendish says in this weekend’s Financial Times, Whitehall “isn’t structured to accept that the right answer may be different in different places or that locals may know best”.

Levelling Up is a bad white paper from a government obsessed with the struggles of the prime minister and not the struggles of counties outside the South East.

Michael Gove must have rued the timeslot allocated for him to present his Levelling Up white paper. I am sure he would have hoped for front page headlines on most of the dailies the next morning. But even as he spoke, media attention was turning to the announcement the next day about the raising of the energy price cap and what the chancellor might do to mitigate the increase as retail prices soar and taxes increase. Levelling Up coverage ended up being squeezed into a narrow gap between Partygate and the cost of living crisis.

Perhaps this long promised white paper was rushed out to distract media attention from the crisis facing Boris Johnson’s leadership. It certainly reads as though it was cobbled together, even plagiarised.

Those looking for a potted (and blinkered) history of urbanisation might wish to peruse Chapter 1 in the full report to learn about Jericho, Constantinople and Rome. Or they could look at Wikipedia instead from where much of this part of the white paper has been copied and pasted. As a former Education Secretary, Michael Gove should be appalled at this plagiarism from Wikipedia without attribution. And shouldn’t he be using the Encyclopaedia Britannica to show his true post-Brexit colours?

The section on Shropshire can be found on page 291 of the full report. A graphic titled “The West Midlands on the global stage” has three words: “Project Gigabit: Shropshire.” That’s all there is. Shropshire Council has publicly complained. I think the problem lies as much with its own capabilities and lack of vision of its leaders as those in Whitehall who don’t seem to know where the north is. Shropshire has been told by Gove it must have an elected mayor overseeing a combined authority of Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin if it wants any money.

I don’t think that is a good idea. There is always a desire by politicians to centralise power while generating headline grabbing initiatives and photo opportunities. That suits their ambitions and egos but does not necessarily deliver the most effective governance of local areas.

We have seen this centralising trend in Shropshire over the last two decades. District councils were abolished. Local area committees were set up and abolished. Scrutiny is tightly controlled by the Conservative chairs – no other party is allowed to chair a scrutiny committee. Public questions have been clamped down on. Cabinet decisions are taken on the nod as the purpose of cabinet is to do no more than rubber stamp in public decisions already made in the shadows of Shirehall and the gloom of Zoom

If we move to an elected mayor, it is going to be more difficult to hold decision makers to account. There will be a mayoral office with all the associated costs. It will be a repeat of David Cameron’s madcap idea of Police and Crime Commissioners.

We should go the other way. We should return to the committee system and distribute committee chairs according to the political balance of the elected councillors.

It’s time to sweep away the tired thinking that dominates Shropshire Council. We need to refresh the way the council works. What we don’t need is an elected mayor overseeing a combined authority of Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin.

We need more money but we also need the right local governance to ensure funds are used to the greatest benefit of the people we are elected to represent.

 

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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8 Comments

  • John Marriott 6th Feb '22 - 10:32am

    Without adding new money to the mix, ‘levelling up’ is dead in the water. As for this obsession with the powerful figure on whose desk the buck stops, if only it did. We have already had Police and Crime Commissioners replacing Police Authorities, Academy Chains competing with LEAs, City Mayors competing with local councils and now we have the prospect of Regional Mayors competing with County, District and Unitary Councils. When push comes to shove, most of these individuals may be ultimately be called to account by central government, thus bypassing many democratically elected institutions.

    By creating what will end up as another layer of bureaucracy, the government is signalling that it doesn’t really trust ordinary people, through their elected representatives, to conduct their affairs without interference. I recently wrote a piece about anocracies, whose quasi democratic structures hide a potentially sinister way of manipulation, which could be far easier when one person has the reins in an area rather than a body that is democratically accountable to local people.

    My views on devolution are well known. I want to trust people with real power and the means of funding it. If they get it wrong, they will be punished at the ballot box. They need to have the right to fail. It’s often slow but it’s called democracy, even if many find it tiresome and frustrating. However, the alternative could lead to something far worse.

  • William Wallace 6th Feb '22 - 4:20pm

    Encyclopedia Britannica would have been very much the most appropriate: an ancient British institution, taken over by an American purchaser a while ago….

  • Alex Macfie 6th Feb '22 - 8:50pm

    When anyone talks of “Jericho” I think of the suburb of Oxford where I used to live, and which is currently represented in Parliament by a Lib Dem.

  • James Fowler 6th Feb '22 - 10:09pm

    We ought to think more carefully about what we mean by levelling up. A popular summary seems to be that wealth gap between London and it’s periphery – say a one hour commute in all directions – is too great. This is all very generalized though, and the phrase itself dodges an uncomfortable truth that greater equality might only be achievable by levelling down. Another uncomfortable thought (at least for many on this website) is that the remedy may not actually lie within government control. The reasons for London’s predominance go back centuries, and will not be unpicked by passing a few laws. Similarly, the reasons for decline in some regions relate to developments in the world economy that go way the capacity of any government to do more than ameliorate. Having said that, these are not reasons for doing nothing. But they are reasons to be cautious about any results and, more importantly, reasons to try and ‘re-frame’ rather than ‘solve’ this issue.

  • Brad Barrows 7th Feb '22 - 12:28am

    ‘Levelling up’ is just clever spin – it is either levelling or it isn’t. Levelling is a process that requires some to lose out so that others may benefit.

  • Graham Jeffs 7th Feb '22 - 11:49am

    I do grow somewhat weary of this oft-pedalled view that everything in the South East is somehow wonderful. It isn’t.

    Get away from the blanket statistics and realise that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people here who are struggling in exactly the same way as those in other regions of the country. On top of that we have the annihilation of NHS dentistry, poor GP/patient ratios, appalling infrastructure, decaying roads (I drive around the whole country and the S.E. is the worst), expensive intermittent rail services and often flaky education. That’s just for starters.

    For many of us living in what are perceived as expensive houses, our situation is merely froth.

    I don’t buy ‘levelling up’. The reality is that there are swathes of people right across the country who need help. ‘Levelling up’ is simply a cynical political gimmick which is also going to be used to further erode local democracy.

    This country needs a coherent plan for combating these many problems – not a load of sound-bites, irrespective of party.

  • Chris Moore 7th Feb '22 - 3:50pm

    Levelling up should be a matter of helping those at the bottom of society.

    I believe this makes better sense than supposed steps to counter geographical inequalities.

    The poorest face the same range of core issues wherever they live. (Other issues ARE regionalised: i.e. housing costs worse in the south: poorer job availability in parts of the Midlands and North.)

    Devolution to local government is a potential vote winner for the party and is in line with core liberal principles. We should be campaigning on that now.

  • Katharine Pindar 8th Feb '22 - 10:56am

    This is interesting. Michael Gove’s White Paper in suggesting more authority figures rather than local democracy is surely wrong, as John Marriott suggests. I think as Chris Moore suggests we ourselves want more devolution to local authorities – and surely, more funds from the centre for depleted local services. And indeed, as Chris indicates, we want a more equal society rather than a ‘levelled up’ one. Yet the White Paper does, according to the reviews which are all I have read so far, have some good objectives, such as increasing pay, employment and productivity in each part of the UK, and greatly increased R and D outside the south-east of England. It also seeks a significant increase in high quality skills training across the UK, as well as significant increases in the numbers of primary school children reaching expected standards. There seems much intended for the fairer society in the objectives which we can probably agree with.

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