OPINION - How Rishi Sunak learned to stop worrying and brand everything levelling up

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

Speaking in Morecambe today, the prime minister said the quiet part out loud:

“We used to call them pocket parks. I think they’re now called levelling up parks. We’ve branded everything levelling up.”

The FT’s Jim Pickard found the TV clip, and it is a delightful snapshot of a man who has taken over a predecessor’s flagship policy and doesn’t mind you knowing he thinks it’s all a bit silly.

Yes, today was all about the latest round of government levelling funds, a £2bn pot allocated to more than 100 projects across the country. The announcement has inevitably led to bickering about too much money going to London and the South-East (which itself is contestable – our figures find the capital received £17 per capita compared with £41 for the North-East and £48 for the North-West). But all this rather misses the point.

Local government has taken an absolute hammering in the last 12 years. According to the Institute for Government, central government grants – including retained business rates – were cut 37% in real-terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20, from £41.0bn to £26.0bn in 2019/20 prices.

And while money for local projects sounds good and may indeed do good, it is in many ways the antithesis of devolution. Local authorities have had to spend money and countless hours putting together proposals they then submit for judgement in some opaque process overseen by ministers and civil servants in London.

Levelling up and devolution are of course quite different beasts. You don’t need the latter to do the former. But it is why Keir Starmer’s ‘take back control’ message, as well as being a god-tier troll, may cut through. Devolution remains popular – 2021 polling by Savanta ComRes for the Centre for Cities think tank found that 83% of people in city-regions supported some form of greater devolution.

And who am I to disagree? But my sense is that what people actually want is better services and more investment in their area. Devolution is one way of doing that, but not the only or even the most straightforward.

The prime minister doesn’t need to operate what is effectively a local government lottery in order to improve living standards across the country. He could raise taxes and spend that money on boosting regional infrastructure or reform planning regulations to encourage more housebuilding where people actually want to live.

But this would require further fiscal transfers from London and the South-East to other parts of the country. That may not go down well with readers of this newsletter (or Tory MPs), but it is how redistribution currently works. Of course, such a policy would cost a lot more than £2bn and demand reserves of political capital few governments, let alone one approaching its fourteenth year in office, have to spend.

Elsewhere in the paper, Jacinda Ardern has announced she is stepping down as prime minister of New Zealand, saying she had “no more in the tank.” Emma Loffhagen profiles the trailblazing leader.

In the comment pages, on the basis that ‘old’ is always around 10 years older than whatever age one is, Sarfraz Manzoor has found the cure for ageing. Isobel van Dyke says the only way to afford rent in London as a single person is to pretend to be your housemate’s long-term lesbian lover. While Abha Shah pulls no punches in reviewing Kim Kardashian’s “British Chav” make-up routine.

And finally, if you’re not already annoyed about the Ulez or levelling up, we’ve compiled a list of the 20 best indie rock bands of all time and there’s a good chance your favourite may not be there.

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