Levelling Up – Deal or No Deal

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Kevin Johnson from Urban Communications reviews the Prime Ministers Levelling Up Speech

Take Back Control. Get Brexit Done. Hands|Face|Space. Build Back Better.

Boris Johnson runs a Government on slogans and rhetoric. With an 80-seat majority and 9 points up in the polls, you’d be a fool to suggest it doesn’t work.

Levelling Up is the big idea of this Government, once it was able to ‘do’ Brexit (don’t mention the protocol) and before the small matter of a global pandemic reared its ugly head.

But today, the PM was sent to Coventry to tell us all what Levelling Up really means. The nation was agog.

You may not have heard too much since mixed messaging over masks and other Freedom Day Step 4 measures; the continuing racism row following abuse aimed at some England players (“I always said it was wrong to boo the England players”) and the Government commissioned national food strategy that has been kicked into touch by ministers quicker than you can say ‘chocolate bar’ have hogged the headlines. So much for the famed No 10 communications grid.

But even once you block out all the other noise, we’re still waiting to find out what Levelling Up actually means.

We knew this would be a speech at the high level, one about philosophy and strategy. A plan is to follow in the shape of a White Paper in the Autumn.

We did get two mini announcements. £50M for community football pitches – topical of sorts, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t some form of re-announcement (both main parties have form for such things in recent years). 

Plus, he suggested County level Mayors but said he was open to other ideas. That’s about as likely to be popular among district and shire councillors as the jettisoned proposal to merge more councils was last year.

A new high streets strategy would also be announced. (There’s also talk that the social care plan that Mr Johnson said was ready two years ago on arriving at the entrance to No 10 might turn up next week).

Mr Johnson’s sketch of the problem is not in question (even if he struggles to understand his own metaphors). Inequalities between different areas of the country, indeed in different parts of the same region, are marked. It leads to less opportunity and – as underlined by the experiences of COVID-19 – massively different health outcomes and life expectancies.

Part of the challenge the PM tried to address was an interpretation of Levelling Up – perhaps by voters in traditional Tory seats – that the jam would be spread from the South East to areas now occupied by Conservatives in ‘Red Wall’ seats. Tall poppies could rest easy, Peter would not be robbed we were told.

Levelling Up has come to mean anything and everything. It is in some ways a useful rhetorical vehicle but ends up acting like a skip on the roadside with all kinds of stuff being thrown in whilst the hirer waits for pick up truck.

So, we had the kitchen sink speech from the PM – crime, police, sport, schools, hospitals, transport, housing, science…you name it, all policy areas were all in there. But no real thread or new ideas.

There was talk of the centralised state and the crushing hand of Whitehall being over. The prospect of new deals with counties was offered.  

Deals.

There lies the problem. There is no genuine sense of devolution forming the foundation to the Government’s Levelling Up policy based on this speech.

It’s about deals – plans inspected and agreed by Whitehall.

There was no talk of extending the powers held by existing Metro Mayors, such as Andy Street.

There was no hint of real devolution, giving fiscal powers to Mayor to borrow, raise and spend.

The debacle of test and trace, with an excessively centralised system rather than utilising the experience and ground coverage of local and regional systems, and this week’s arguments over which transport operators are required to maintain use of face coverings, underline our centralised and patchwork system.

Deals and funds mean different localities have to compete with each other for relatively small amounts of cash and rely on them convincing officials and ministers miles and miles away.

Giving Mayors and their transport bodies more direct powers, handing them a greater co-ordinating role in aligning further education funding and provision with business needs and looking again at how spatial planning fits into the system would be a start.

PM Johnson delivered his speech at the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry. It was created out of the Industrial Strategy, now abandoned by Government.

On this evidence, Mr Johnson is going to need a new set of Levelling Up batteries.

Kevin Johnson is MD of strategic communications firm Urban Communications.  

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