The distorting power of the “north-south divide” trope was on full display last week after the second bunch of allocations from the government’s Levelling Up Fund were announced: the Guardian informed its readers that the £151 million awarded to projects in London was more than Yorkshire and the North East received – injustice! – but didn’t mention that London got less than Wales, the South East, the South West, the West Midlands and Scotland as well as the North West, let alone that when you did the long division London received, at 17 pence, the lowest amount per head of population in the whole of the UK.
Even a BBC reporter, questioning Rishi Sunak in Morecambe, put it to him that money had been poured into London and the South East, or words to that effect, and how could that be “levelling up”? Neil Garratt of the invariably and mysteriously pro-government London Assembly Conservative group as good as went along with this, going on the telly to thank his national leaders very much. The reality is that the latest “levelling up” distributions confirm that Sunak’s government is an anti-London, pork barrel operation.
They also confirm what has always been the case – that “levelling up” funding has never been much more than a rigged centralist beauty contest that has done little to either elevate the economies of areas outside the south of England towards the heights of London’s or alleviate poverty anywhere any better than a properly-resourced local authority or a kinder benefits system could, or whatever else Boris Johnson’s flagship “agenda” has pretended to be about.
The stinging rebuke of Andy Street, Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, who called for an end to Whitehall’s “broken begging bowl culture” brought to the public stage what everyone already knows in private – the “flagship” was a Johnson PR mirage from the start and now its credibility is sinking fast. Street has local support in the form of Birmingham Business School professor John R. Bryson, who writes: “Allocating government funding to support projects is a highly politicised process and the outcome always represents a politics of tokenism.” Reducing the UK’s dependency on London by helping other areas grow stronger will take a great deal more than that.
For the record, eight bids from London were successful, the biggest of which, yielding £43.2 million, was by City Hall and Transport for London for money to make Colindale and Leyton stations nicer and to provide step-free access. Haringey got £20 million for the Selby Centre in North Tottenham; Lewisham got £19 million for a marketplace upgrade; Hackney got £19 million for improvements to the Hackney Central area; Waltham Forest got £17.2 million for cultural projects; Sutton got £14.1 million to improve the frequency of trains to Belmont; Barking & Dagenham got £10.8 million for housing and crime prevention; and Camden got £7.7 million to spend on bicycle and walking infrastructure.
All of these sums are significant and no doubt welcome, but should be valued in the context of an overall 20 per cent reduction in government funding for local government since 2010 with some of London’s poorest losing more still, and the miserly, vengeful micro-management of TfL by Johnson’s regime after the onset of the pandemic. The “levelling up” cash mechanism represents the hoarding of power and resources by central government not the devolution of them that was promised in the 2019 election manifesto.
If it wasn’t plain already that “levelling up” has been a sham it is now amply apparent – ask a Tory with a bit of bottle. For decades, if not centuries, the UK has wanted and needed to improve growth and productivity across the whole nation and must recognise the fact that this cannot be achieved outside London at London’s expense. Once again a promise to address a huge historic problem has not been kept. Once again it’s time to look for serious solutions – starting today.
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