For a term that has been in circulation for more than two years, “levelling up” has not been the catchiest of political concepts. Journalists and politicians now tend to treat it as a self-explanatory part of the national vocabulary, but in my experience few people in the real world have any idea what it means. Neither, if they were to be honest, do large numbers of Conservative politicians.
But it will not go away. Boris Johnson’s reshuffle was sold as the formation of a new team that would “focus on uniting and levelling up the whole country”. Michael Gove’s arrival at the newly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we were told, represented a ramping-up of the effort applied to this challenge. “I don’t think people appreciate quite how seriously Boris takes levelling up,” one Conservative source told The Times. If you appoint Nadine Dorries as the culture secretary and then float the idea of a return to imperial weights and measures, many people may have trouble believing you are serious about anything, but there we are: amid the culture wars pantomime, the prime minister’s allies insist that levelling-up efforts are under way and will now only gather momentum.
The Treasury is opening a new “campus” in Darlington, which will be followed by shifting bits of the government machine to cities including Manchester and Wolverhampton. Plans for new free ports will bring low-tax zones – and, it is said, thousands of jobs – to places such as Liverpool, Hull, Hartlepool and Plymouth.
There is also an apparently ever-expanding array of centrally held “funds”. A levelling-up fund of £4.8bn has been set up, and places can now bid for help with “town and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural heritage assets”. A shared prosperity fund, set up to compensate for the loss of cash from the EU and aimed at business, skills and “community and place”, will operate on a similar basis and total an annual £1.5bn; to pave the way for it, the government has already set up a £220m community renewal fund. The so-called towns fund has given about 100 such places grants of up to £25m.
Whatever their good intentions, one criticism of these fragmented plans is easy: many of them combine comparatively piffling sums of money with an almost Soviet-esque level of complexity. Another focus of negativity is the sense of pork-barrel politics (witness the farce of the affluent corner of Yorkshire represented by Rishi Sunak being put in the levelling-up fund’s top tier, while post-industrial Barnsley received much stingier treatment). This point extends to an overlooked tension in the idea that levelling up is something for “the whole country”. Among the points it makes about the local austerity still being handed down from Whitehall and the thin spread of levelling-up money, a recent exhaustive report issued on behalf of 47 English councils – run by both main parties – makes one key argument plain: “You cannot level up everywhere in the UK. You must prioritise.”
Woven through all these distributional tensions are questions about power and where it lies. People who run cities, counties and boroughs wonder why so much help has to come from centrally held pots of money that they must endlessly compete for (“It’s all bids – there’s nothing where you control your own destiny,” one local Labour politician told me last week). Some bemoan the fact that England’s new elected mayors still have such limited powers and small budgets. These points lead in turn to a question that has not surfaced in mainstream politics, but soon should: what might a viable, authentic, enduring kind of levelling up look like?
A good place to get an answer is Stoke-on-Trent, the city that sits on the imaginary border between the north and Midlands. It was once monopolised by Labour; now, it has three Tory MPs. Its city council leader, Abi Brown, is a fascinating Conservative politician, full of energy, irreverence and ideas. Partly thanks to her leadership, Stoke now has a “powering-up” plan that illustrates what radically changing a post-industrial area might entail with much more coherence than anything that has so far emerged from Westminster. It covers transport (Stoke, Brown says, remains “brilliant to get to, but rubbish to get around”), and ambitious plans for economic regeneration and redevelopment. But it is also built around such themes as early years education and public wellbeing – not least when it comes to mental health.
Brown says that some of the powering-up plans have received help from ministers while others have been given comparatively little attention, and what is lacking is “a joined-up conversation”. She also expresses a wearied frustration with the necessity of competitively bidding for money put in preordained boxes: “We already have a plan, and we’re really up for having a conversation about it – as opposed to just being forced into competitions all the time.”
She has put in a bid for a grant from the levelling-up fund, but after 10 years of cuts, she says the city council may not have the staff or resources to make the most of the money. “I could potentially get £72m of cash from the government,” she told me. “That would be bloody brilliant, and I’d be delighted. But my big challenge is, I don’t have the people to help spend that cash. I have one person who works in my transport policy team.” She says she also suffers from Westminster’s fixation with elected regional mayors: “I’ve stood in rooms and heard ministers say, ‘We want a single accountable individual.’ Well, why am I not that single accountable individual? I’m the leader of a city of a quarter of a million people.”
One other aspect of Stoke’s current experience goes to the heart of levelling up. The city, Brown says, is experiencing an economic renaissance, but its social problems show that buildings, jobs and the government’s beloved “infrastructure” are never the whole story. “I’m creating jobs,” says Brown. “I’m bringing brownfield sites back into use. We’re building houses. That’s all great. But if people in my city are dying younger than other people and not getting the education they deserve, and there are still challenges around social care – I’m not actually winning, am I?” Some of these problems, she says, go back decades. But this year, the council is in the midst of another round of cuts to services – and though she will not be drawn on their scale, she says more are likely to follow.
Back in Westminster, a levelling-up “taskforce” is to be set up, and a belated white paper is reportedly imminent. There have been warm words from the people putting it together about devolution, hi-tech and high-wage jobs, “physical regeneration” and “pride in place”. What is likely to be missing is one simple course of action that might convince people that levelling up is worth their interest: finally giving places all the power and money they have needed for years, and then getting out of the way.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist