Levelling up Britain: A Political Necessity

By Daniel Lawes

The landslide victory in the 2019 general election prompted Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to identify “levelling up” of the United Kingdom (UK) as one of his government’s key priorities. In recent months, however, the mission to “unleash Britain’s potential” has taken a backseat to tackle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Local governments are still awaiting the government’s white paper on devolution amidst calls for greater fiscal decentralisation to aid the nation’s economic recovery. As the country begins to rebuild, the Prime Minister needs to ensure that the “levelling up” of the UK continues to be at the forefront of his political agenda.

A political mission

The levelling up of the UK has been long overdue. For decades, northern regions of the UK have experienced the repercussions of poor public services and a lack of investment. Even in today’s UK, pupils in the poorest areas in the north are four times more likely to attend schools graded less than good than London counterparts. Households in the South East have over twice the amount of wealth in households in the North West. Men from Manchester can expect to die nine years younger than those in Hampshire. The government’s pledge to “build prosperity and strengthen” these areas is, therefore, necessary to not only build the northern economy but also to uplift the future generations.

From a political perspective, in the December 2019 elections, greater devolution in England was at the core of the Conservative Party’s bid to win over Labour’s former ‘Red Wall’ constituencies. Indeed, once these historically left-leaning seats changed their flags to blue, many for the first time since the 1930s, Prime Minister Johnson said that he perceived such votes as a “loan”. That analogy will remain in the minds of newly converted voters because as the Prime Minister himself acknowledged – a loan requires both parties to maintain their side of the bargain.

The impact of COVID-19

The ongoing pandemic has put the government’s plans of levelling up the UK on hold. The long-awaited white paper on devolution has been pushed back, and public funds have been diverted to support services, especially for local councils, that are directly contributing to the fight against coronavirus. Nevertheless, the pandemic has taught us some essential lessons about the need for greater devolution.

Local governments have demonstrated that with greater funding and freedom, they are able to serve their communities effectively. From the outset, these authorities have been at the heart of the nation’s response to the pandemic. In July 2020, as a part of the COVID-19 package, the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Robert Jenrick announced an additional £500 million for councils, bringing the total support to £4.3 billion. This ensured that at least for the initial stages of the crisis, councils were able to be agile and proactive in their response.

However, it has also brought to the surface and exacerbated many of the issues at hand. As the COVID-19 crisis has persisted, local governments have reported an inability to meet the extra financial pressures it has raised. The Centre for Progressive Policy found that eight out of ten councils are at technical risk of bankruptcy, the majority of which reside within the former ‘Red Wall’. These are the councils that had been hit the hardest by austerity measures and should be prioritised in the effort to level up England. Therefore, though the priority is still to salvage the damage done by the pandemic, the “levelling up” agenda cannot be put on the backburner for too long.

The challenge ahead

Boris Johnson’s government will have to overcome enormous barriers in order to fulfil its obligation to level up the UK. One large investment akin to Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s March Budget promise of £640 billion for infrastructure and transport will not be enough. The Resolution Foundation found that those living in the newly converted ‘Blue Wall’ have below-average incomes, education levels and living standards. The promise to ‘level up’ the UK will, therefore, take more than a single investment – a multi-dimensional approach encompassing investments in education, transport and jobs is required.

The financial feasibility of the task ahead is also highly questionable. It will prove difficult for the government to balance a commitment to invest heavily in ‘left behind regions’ whilst maintaining their pledge to not raise VAT or borrow extensively. Notwithstanding, such commitments were not made at a time of deep economic recession. Local councils will await the arrival of the Devolution and Recovery White Paper that expected later this year to provide some indication about future funding and the possibility of increased fiscal devolution. Amongst all this uncertainty, however, one thing is clear – this government cannot afford politically to make the same mistakes of its predecessors and fail to level up Britain.

Ultimately, COVID-19 has raised barriers to Boris Johnson’s aim of unleashing Britain’s potential. The economic impact of the crisis has exhausted public funds and worsened existing issues. Nevertheless, as the nation embarks on its journey to recovery, it presents a golden opportunity for this government to prioritise the areas that it has promised to help. The Prime Minister is correct when he states that the current state of affairs neglects extensive human talent and economic potential, but it is time to deliver. Otherwise, the newly converted ‘Blue Wall’ may change its colours once again.

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