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“Levelling up” is how we deliver equality of opportunity: extending the same opportunities to those who don’t currently have them as for those who do. How to do so is yet to be set out by Boris Johnson’s government but it requires systematically closing the opportunity gaps that open up from our earliest years, into education and then careers. It is the most complex policy agenda ministers face, alongside delivering net zero. This year’s Conservative Party Conference must be the long awaited moment that we finally see concrete plans set out.
Not only is levelling up multi-faceted, with Michael Gove’s shift to secretary of state for levelling up, Boris Johnson also signals he rightly understands that levelling up is a national challenge but one delivered at a local level. There can be a range of levelling up challenges but different places face different “blends” of those challenges, whether connectivity, education, or opportunities being open to all, not just those who are well-connected. It means that a conventional Whitehall “one size fits all” style simply won’t work.
In a previous incarnation as London mayor, Boris Johnson eloquently and regularly set out the opportunities that he believed handing fresh powers for mayors would bring. Now it’s time for Michael Gove to make Mayor Johnson’s dreams a reality, devolve the money and powers they need to level up and then get out of the way to let them get on with it.
One area of change must be more devolution on education alongside skills. Mayors have few powers to work on talent development “upstream” by strategically driving school improvement. With academies led outside of local authorities, it can be hard to co-ordinate locally. One way some areas have been able to drive school improvement is through locally designed education plans – opportunity areas.
Yet at present, it’s up to the department for education to decide where opportunity area programmes should be. Instead, mayors should be able to choose. And devolving wider school improvement budgets would mean they have the money to go with the power. No more piecemeal year by year DfE funding announcements for opportunity areas dripped out: barely a short term plan, let alone the long term one needed. More transparency over school improvement resourcing would also be welcome.
For the many areas without mayors, Mr Gove should resist the temptation to have a protracted battle over introducing more without local agreement. Covid-19 showed areas with multiple tiers of local government were able to work effectively together on a common mission of tackling the pandemic. They must now be tasked to also show leadership with a similarly joined up approach on levelling up and reshaping the country beyond it. A sense of urgency is vital. The last thing the electorate wants is time wasted on a dull argument between politicians on local government reform.
Gove must also now push the Treasury, with its longstanding keenness on devolution for departmental budgets and responsibilities, to look closer to home. Businesses and local authorities have been waiting for crucial business rate reform for years to rejuvenate the high street. If the Treasury cannot resolve its own policy questions quickly enough, then it must finally be time to also devolve some of their decision-making powers to local leaders, allowing a more tailored approach on boosting local economic growth and opportunities.
Conservatives traditionally believe in small government. Levelling up is therefore good news in more ways than one. It means the days of the Whitehall fat controller are over. At this conference, Whitehall and the country need to hear how that plan will work.
Justine Greening was Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities from July 2016 to January 2018. She is the co-founder of the Social Mobility Pledge