“Is that it?” – Responding to the Levelling Up White Paper

Lauren Davison is an Open Labour National Committee Member 

“Is that it?” asked Labour’s Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, Lisa Nandy. After poring over the 332-page long “Levelling Up” White Paper, I find myself thinking the same thing. It is hard to view this document as anything other than a hollow and cynically-motivated attempt by the Government to appear busy. This is demonstrated by the fact that there is no new money being announced, and many of the central aims within the paper are just recycled, from the recently abandoned Industrial Strategy missions. Some were ideas touted by the last Labour Government, back in 2008. Unsurprisingly, the National Audit Office has roundly criticised this paper, citing a lack of confidence that the proposals will present value for money or be effective. 

Rather than acting out of a deep-rooted concern for towns and cities that have been left behind, the paper feels like an accidental admission of guilt, given that a significant proportion of the paper details the levels of inequality in the UK. Michael Gove says his strategy will “help those who have been overlooked for years”. Overlooked by who? After all, the Conservatives have been in power for the last 12 years – if they’re only now “levelling up”, what have they been doing since 2010? We all know the answer to that question – overseeing a managed decline of our regions and nations. 

It’s important to note that the heavy focus on both the Midlands and North of England, whilst important and welcomed, doesn’t address the issues faced by the South West, as well as the East of England. Inequalities, division and funding disparities occur from East to West, not just from North to South – and this is something Labour would do well to recognise, also. 

It is clearly no bad thing if opportunity and prosperity is redistributed. All investment is welcomed and accepted – but not uncritically. I live in Stoke-on-Trent. We are a post-industrial city that has faced the double whammy of a Tory-run council and a Tory government. Cities like Stoke-on-Trent were at the very heart of the industrial revolution which built this country, but we’re now expected to settle for mere crumbs from the table. This, frankly, won’t wash.  Under the plans in this paper, the North will only be given £1 for every £13 in funding that was stripped away. Since the initial announcement last year, the published budget for bus services, which Stoke-on-Trent was set to benefit from, has been decreased in this paper by £1.8bn.  

This so-called “levelling up” strategy will see some of the most deprived communities, for example Labour-held Knowsley, not receiving a single penny. Whereas Sajid Javid’s wealthy Bromsgrove constituency benefits to the tune of £148.33 per head. 

Despite their rhetoric around decentralising power from Whitehall, the Tories don’t actually respect local leaders and representatives enough to listen to them. When Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, dared to criticise investment for not going far enough, he was told in no uncertain terms by a Conservative MP Karl McCartney: “Do you understand the meaning of the phrase ‘do not bite the hand that feeds you’?”. On top of this, Burnham was criticised by the Prime Minister in parliament for his Clean Air Zone plans, despite the fact its very existence was a Conservative government directive. This patronising attitude seems to be baked into the plans to level up, but after 12 years of Tory austerity, our communities deserve better. 

By the time any of these measures are implemented, the Conservatives will have been in power for 20 years. Granted, against a backdrop of widespread cuts, there is no immediate and quick fix – but these proposals show a lack of urgency and a willingness to keep kicking the can down the road. We were told levelling up was the priority of Johnson’s government, but he has basically deferred the agenda. He might not be the leader of his party in 8 weeks time – let alone in 8 years.

Many people will be looking around them, at their austerity-ravaged towns and wonder why it’s taken this long for the government to get its act together. Why has inequality been allowed to become so entrenched? The people of this country cannot wait another 8 years for prosperity that may never materialise. With living costs rising, the effects of a pandemic, and public services on their knees from years of cuts, the situation is desperate now


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