The pledge to level up the UK was one of the cornerstones of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto. That document promised that a Conservative government would unite and level up, spreading opportunity across the whole United Kingdom. But it was light on detail about how this would be achieved. Boris Johnson used the Queen’s Speech in May to set out plans to publish a levelling up white paper in this parliamentary session; superseding previously announced plans for a white paper on English devolution.
The parliament is already two years old. The levelling up white paper was due for publication before the end of the last year but is reported to have been delayed until the end of this month. But while levelling up is proving hard to explain, it will also be difficult to achieve. Unless the government acts quickly to set out how levelling up works, and who will deliver it, then it will have little to show for one of its flagship pledges by the next general election.
There was much speculation that the levelling up white paper would appear alongside October’s budget and spending review. That timing would have helped ensure that the hundreds of billions of pounds allocated for the next three years at the spending review were suitably aligned with the government’s levelling up ambitions.
But the white paper did not materialise. Instead, departments’ spending settlements were simply accompanied by a list of priority outcomes related to levelling up, which were little changed from a year earlier, suggesting little development or clarification of the agenda. It was then widely reported that the white paper would be published in early December. That would have allowed local authorities across the UK at least a small amount of time to digest the proposals – some of which they may need to play a part in delivering – before finalising their budget plans for 2022/23. But a combination of the Omicron coronavirus wave, a succession of bad news stories for the government, and disagreement over the contents of the white paper itself means that launch date has also been missed.
The latest speculation is that it will now be published towards the end of this month. While it is right to fine-tune such a crucial policy document, allowing such a cornerstone paper to continue being delayed is damaging the government’s ability to make progress. The paper’s publication should not slip any further.
We noted in September that more clarity was needed about what the government means by ‘levelling up’. We highlighted that the government needs to be clearer about: what measures it will use to judge success; how (if at all) it plans to reconcile tensions between policies focused on bolstering the performance of specific places and those focused on improving opportunities for disadvantaged people (wherever they may live); and what it believes the role should be for regional cities in driving improved outcomes for left-behind places. Nothing since then has moved us any closer to answering those questions.
We also emphasised that the government needed to set out what it saw as the role for local government in delivering levelling up and how it planned to work with the devolved administrations, especially in devolved policy areas. More recent developments underline this need. Far from empowering local leaders – as Michael Gove indicated was the government’s intention in his party conference speech in October – the integrated rail plan, published in November, showed signs the government was slipping into its familiar habit of excessive central control. The devolved administrations have also continued to express concern about the UK government’s intention to spend money on areas of devolved competence.
The centre cannot do everything itself – either constitutionally (not least because some powers are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) or practically (given the limited manpower and spending power of central government). Boris Johnson and his ministers will have to work with, and rely on, other parts of government – and the private sector – to play their part too. The white paper must spell out what is expected of the local and devolved administrations, and the role the centre will play in providing guidance, leadership and support.
The UK’s long-standing inequalities in economic performance and other measures of wellbeing will not be resolved in a single parliament – let alone in half a parliament. However, the government could start to make meaningful progress before the next election if ministers decide what their priorities are, communicate those clearly to the rest of government and to the private sector, and start setting out the measures they will roll out in pursuit of these objectives.
But the later the government leaves it to provide more detail, the less likely it is that government departments, the devolved administrations and local authorities will be able to marshal their resources to make a visible difference before the next election.
- Our Plan | Conservative Manifesto 2019, www.conservatives.com/our-plan
- Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, Queen’s Speech 2021: background briefing notes, 11 May 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/queens-speech-2021-background-briefing-notes
- Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Provisional local government finance settlement: England, 2022 to 2023, 16 December 2021, www.gov.uk/government/collections/provisional-local-government-finance-settlement-england-2022-to-2023
- Coates S, Conservative conference 2021: Why Gove’s definition of ‘levelling up’ could cause problems in government, Sky News, 5 October 2021, https://news.sky.com/story/conservative-conference-2021-why-goves-definition-of-levelling-up-could-cause-problems-in-government-12426105#
- Nutt K, SNP warn Rishi Sunak’s Budget ‘for the Union’ will undermine devolution, The National, 27 October 2021, www.thenational.scot/news/19677242.snp-warn-rishi-sunaks-budget-for-union-will-undermine-devolution