When Collins Dictionary announced its annual ‘word of the year’ list in December, amongst the usual new buzzwords such as ‘hybrid-working’, ‘metaverse’ and ‘pingdemic’ was one noticeable omission – ‘levelling-up’. This was, after all, the year when the catchphrase went from just another Conservative slogan like ‘build back better’ or the inspirational ‘jabs jabs jabs’ to the central tenet of the Johnson administration.
Yet despite this omnipresence, we’re still no closer to finding out exactly what levelling-up means. The term is so nebulous that it could be applied to just about anything new that happens in a typically ‘left-behind’ town or city. WIFI on the local buses? That’s levelling-up. Segregated cycle lanes installed on the bypass? Sure, why not. The old Debenhams site being converted into a mixed-use development of shared-ownership apartments and flexible workspace for local start-ups? Welcome to the next level Worksop.
We all intrinsically know the types of things that could fall under the levelling up banner, from the small and banal to transformational mega-projects. But so far there has been no coherent plan or strategy in place setting out how the Government intends to make sure more of these kinds of things happen in the right places at the right times. All this was set to take shape with the publication the Government’s Levelling-Up White Paper. First announced in May last year, the paper was originally set for publication alongside the Autumn Budget and Spending Review in October, which would have made a lot of sense. But then it was delayed until the end of the year as Michael Gove got to grips with his new department, then 2021 turned to 2022 with a government in crisis and no white paper in sight. The latest speculation is we will see it by the end of the month but there’s no guarantee it won’t be pushed back again amidst ongoing rifts in the Cabinet.
And the longer it gets delayed the more it looks like the Government is struggling to reach any kind of agreement on the scope of and scale of the levelling-up agenda. Taking it beyond a catchphrase means genuinely addressing the UK’s appalling levels of regional inequality and this will require massive levels of investment and complex cooperation between all layers of local or regional government. And yet, this is a government that has seemed increasingly wary of ceding any power or responsibility and increasingly favouring centralised control, given both the Integrated Rail Plan and Shared Prosperity Fund have recently seen regional bodies side-lined and funding slashed respectively, who would be surprised if 2022 sees levelling-up become yet another grand vision that’s just too much effort to deliver?
The other factor to look out for is how much the levelling-up backlash grows in the Tory shires over the course of the year. The feeling levelling up means poorer places gain at the expense of wealthier ones undoubtedly played a part in Conservative defeats in the Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire by-elections last year. If this trend is repeated at the Local elections in May, it may be the final straw for backbenchers.
Unless the Government can shift the narrative to levelling-up being good for the whole of the UK, Johnson could face a big choice this year whether to go all-out on holding Red Wall seats, or to protect his base and quietly send levelling-up to join the Big Society in the graveyard of vague ideas.