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.

Mark Pack has just reminded us that in prioritising the winning of seats in the ‘blue wall halo’ around London we must be careful not to forget about the different concerns of potential Liberal Democrat voters in the rest of the country.  Liberal Democrat Councillors are hoping to make gains in many northern towns and cities, in campaigns where cuts in funding from central government will be an issue alongside (and linked to) the quality of local services.  Labour will be hoping to regain lost seats as a wave of disappointment sweeps voters back from the Conservatives; but there are also seats in which we can again become contenders, where we are already the alternative to Labour, or where there are enthusiastic Liberal Democrat activists building a local base.

The angry reaction of northern media to December’s Integrated Rail Strategy (which cut several promised elements, including the new trans-Pennine link) gave us a foretaste of how a scaled-back version of Levelling Up is likely to be received.  The lengthening delay in the publication of the White Paper shows continuing confusion within government over what it should say, with tax-cutters and small-state enthusiasts opposed to the long-term investments that are essential to a coherent strategy.

The UK, and England within it, are more sharply unequal than any other advanced democracy except for the USA – in terms of income, patterns of health, educational and career opportunities, life expectancy, quality of public services and access to public transport.  That’s not compatible with maintaining an open democracy or social order in the long run; the drift to disillusioned populism that we’ve witnessed in the USA has already become apparent here.  A Liberal, and Social Democratic, response has to commit to the long-term investment to rebalance our divided country.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Nigel Jones 14th Jan '22 - 9:28pm

    “offering money in small packets to tidy up town centres”; in North Staffs these packages run into tens of millions though it will take a few years to implement and is based on the trickle down theory of economics for the less well off. Even this week, increased poverty has been reported in the area, but with house prices rising and the likelihood that many new businesses and houses will attract a fair proportion of ‘well-off’ people from elsewhere, the inequalities for most local people will not be impacted.
    Until public services, housing and welfare are improved inequality will continue. Yet there are signs that people are being wooed by the local Conservative councils to believe the future is bright under their rule and much is being said about the previous Labour MPs not serving their communities well. There is truth in the previous Labour councils not doing a good job and we Lib-Dems are too few to be noticed, so I am not optimistic about our area for the next few years.

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