Like the grand old industrial towns it was designed to help, levelling up is a policy that knows the bitter sting of decline. Once it was the pride of the Conservative Party, the flagship policy that would turn the voters of the Red Wall who lended their support to the Conservatives in 2019 into paid-up Tories for life. But like those towns, it’s moment in the sun was all too fleeting and now, as times and tastes have changed, it’s become a slightly embarrassing relic of a bygone era, only with a lasting legacy that sees it occasionally return the headlines.
This week was one of those weeks with the announcement of the latest round of funding awards as part of the Levelling Up Fund. On the face of it, there’s a lot for the Government to shout about. £2.1bn has been awarded to 100 projects around the country, with some essential funding awarded to projects that will be truly transformational, such as £50m for the new Eden Project in Morecambe and £50m for the Cardiff Crossrail project that will improve connectivity across South Wales.
But as with any handout, you can’t keep everyone happy and the manner of how the funding is awarded – pitting council against council in winner-takes all battles – is a recipe for bitterness. Not just from the usual suspects either, you’d expect Labour MPs and metro mayors who missed out to be critical, but this time it was Conservatives too, with West Midlands Mayor Andy Street criticising the funding process as part of Whitehall’s “begging bowl” culture. Even the successful areas could be forgiven for finding victory hollow. Aside from a few headline projects, most of the schemes amount to a few million here for new changing rooms in the leisure centre and a few million there for new cycle lanes on the bypass. All very worthy interventions, but set against the backdrop of years of cuts to local authority budgets, it’s hardly the level of spending needed to redress protracted underinvestment and decline.
And despite Sunak making the effort on Thursday to travel up to the North West and put the hours in selling the announcement, you can’t help but feel the launch was a failure of communication – overly defensive on the allocation of funds to the South East (which has no shortage of left-behind areas) and eventually overshadowed by a very avoidable seatbelt based howler which could see the PM hit with his second fixed penalty notice in a year.
Add to that the news on Wednesday that CCHQ has been telling Conservative MPs to drop the term levelling up completely in favour of apparently more easily understandable terms such as ‘gauging up’ (whatever that means), and you get the distinct impression that the entire levelling up mission is seen as an unwanted inheritance by the Sunak administration that would happily be dropped if it wasn’t for these awkward funding rounds that keep cropping up.
But keep cropping up they will and dropping levelling up completely would a risky and difficult move. Effectively it would be a complete abandonment of Red Wall MPs and explicit admission that the next general election is already lost (and you can just picture Boris now, likening Sunak to the Roman Emperor Honorius, denying the desperate pleas of the Romano-British for aid against the Saxon hordes). So most likely, levelling up will limp on, just like those industrial towns, forever reminiscing about the better days of old and wondering if, had the right people been in charge, things could have been different.