Tag Archives: levelling up white paper

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.

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Who will deliver on Levelling Up?

Apart from the rumbling crisis developing around No.10 and the Prime Minister’s behaviour, the launch of the Levelling Up White Paper will be one of the defining moments between now and the next election.  Already delayed by disagreements within government, it’s now promised by the end of January.   If it’s a damp squib, deflating the hopes of voters in ‘red wall’ seats that Boris and Brexit would transform the poorer towns and cities of England, many of those seats will be lost again next time.

Many Conservatives cling to what cynics call ‘hanging basket’ levelling up: offering money in small packets to tidy up town centres, to bring back local pride and confidence.  Over 100 packages of funding are now on offer, through competitive bids biased in favour of Conservative-held and target seats.  Local authorities are spending money they can ill-afford writing bids for sums as little as £250,000 a time.  The maldistribution of levelling-up funds is a scandal in the making. 5 of the 10 most deprived LAs – Blackpool, Knowsley, Sandwell, Hackney and Barking – have reportedly received none; most other LAs have received far less than they have lost in core funding since 2016-17.

Gove would like to be more financially expansive – but the Treasury and Tory right-wingers are resisting. In his model central government will remain firmly in control.  This government distrusts local democracy.  Gove has talked of power for directly-elected mayors for cities, and ‘governors’ for counties, under central government direction, with a sharp reduction in numbers of councillors and local scrutiny.

The Liberal Democrat response needs to be robust.  The scale of the challenge of reducing regional and individual inequalities in the UK is such that it needs a long-term commitment to investment in a linked group of policies: education, from pre-school to FE, infrastructure and transport, local innovation and regeneration, and the revival of local public services.   The budgetary cost will require higher taxes, fairly distributed and carefully justified.  The need for consistency over 10-20 years means that an effort must be made to build some cross-party consensus, so that it will continue through changes of government.  And it MUST be led by local government, locally accountable – not dribbled down in penny packages by ministers and officials in London.

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