This week was meant to be a big week for the Government – but it hasn’t exactly gone big in the way they had planned. Between the Sue Gray report release, a 12-party strong police investigation, a crippling energy price hike, and five senior advisors quitting Downing Street, it’s understandable that you may have missed the re-launch of Levelling Up through Michael Gove’s long-awaited White Paper.
Gove is no doubt happy to provide a bit of light relief in yet another turbulent week of politics. But did his 400-odd page paper finally answer the questions that have been on everyone’s lips since 2019: What is “Levelling Up”, really? And how do we do it?
At first glance the paper isn’t keen to give up this information easily. With a 17-page long executive summary, followed by an introduction that goes into the roots of natural irrigation in Jericho c. 8,000 B.C., you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve accidentally cracked open Gove’s Classics thesis submission as opposed to the UK’s roadmap out of regional inequality.
But dig a little deeper, past the colourful graphs and diagrams, and you’ll find some meat has been slapped onto these bones. Levelling Up now has a timeframe and some ambitious goals to improve the lives of those left behind across the country. We can now broadly aim to have “Levelled Up” by 2030 by achieving a range of very ambitious but questionably funded goals everywhere outside of the South East.
To create new hives of world-class economic activity, Gove has chosen 20 new areas for regeneration, with Wolverhampton and Sheffield kicking off plans to transform city centres across the country. A £1.5bn Levelling Up Home Building Fund for loans to small and medium-sized housebuilders, and a £180m boost to the Brownfield Housing Fund, cement regeneration as a key indicator of success for Levelling Up.
Beyond bricks and mortar, the paper dives into a plethora of initiatives touching sectors far and wide: £5bn for bus services and active travel, a boost for grassroots football, more support for local skills training programmes, activities for young people. Gove brings together wildly diverse programmes, holding his department accountable for 12 “Levelling Up Missions” that will improve outcomes on transport, wellbeing, violent crime rates, internet access, children’s reading and writing standards, first-time-buyer home ownership rates, and even life expectancy.
If Gove is holding himself accountable for this broad church of improvements, it seems all we’ll need to run the country is himself and a bottomless pit of money. We’ve got Gove, but where is the money?
While there’s no doubt the White Paper sets out an ambitious vision for a levelled-up UK, the detail on how it becomes a reality is still pretty sketchy. Most of the funding behind these initiatives is from pots that have already been announced and allocated over the past few years, with a lot of it recycled from the 2021 Spending Review. This, combined with the fact that devolution in the form of new Metro Mayors is his big ace-in-the-hole for delivery, doesn’t exactly signal the cash injection think tanks and analysts are calling for to realistically make good on these promises. Asking regions to shoulder all the responsibility of levelling up without giving them the resources to actually do so sounds like a pretty good way to enrage a lot of people.
Lofty promises with little funding on a 2030 timeline is all that voters will have to judge Gove’s Levelling Up ambitions on at the next election. After three years of rhetoric, followed by inflation and tax rises, will those promises be enough to keep regions backing this government? Or will voters deem them as empty as the halls of Downing Street? Only time will tell.