After two years of hot air and waffle about “levelling up” the substance of the government’s achievements with what it still insists is a hallmark mission can be summed up as a bare-faced vote-blagging exercise combining pork-barrel politics, London-bashing and Leave-pleasing noise. In the run-up to the Conservative conference, Michael Gove, newly-appointed boss of the so-called super department for Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government, dropped hints of greater depth to come, trailing lists about pride and empowerment and test-driving localist slogans at the Sun. Then came his speech in Manchester. Behold, the shallowness endured.
True, Gove listed four objectives: strengthening local leadership; raising living standards; improving public services; giving people “the resources necessary to enhance the pride they feel in the place they live”. But he did not spell out in any detail what type of local leadership or how strong he would permit it to be; how it would contribute to other “levelling up” goals; the scale of the resources to be provided, or what he thought pride in place might comprise. And so the wait continues. Are there any signs of hope that “levelling up” will help London or, for that matter, anywhere other than a few favoured Tory constituencies in the North, as the Levelling Up Fund was so blatantly designed to do?
Squint hard and you can make out one or two. The brightest is the recruitment to the cabinet office of Andy Haldane, ex-chief economist of the Bank of England and lately chief executive of the RSA to lead a “levelling up task force” reporting to Gove and Boris Johnson. Haldane has previously urged the government to get a grip on what it means by “levelling up” and to have a “fundamental re-think of devolution practices” – a heartening message given the utter contempt with which members of Johnson’s team have treated the capital’s devolution settlement, especially in relation to transport and strategic planning.
Another branch to cling to, though it might be clutching at a straw, is that Gove has barely got his feet under the desk and might be conducting his own re-think about the task ahead and what should be in that long-awaited levelling-up white paper. Perhaps he won’t be quite as clueless on the theme as the administration he’s part of as been so far.
That’s the bright side. What are chances of it getting brighter? I’m not holding my breath. Centre for London chief executive Nick Bowes has set out five priorities for Gove, pointing out the need for “a comprehensive programme of devolution that includes meaningful fiscal freedoms”, avoiding misleading north-south divide cliches and not indulging a “levelling down” London, as if that is some sort rebalancing solution. The Commons housing, communities and local government committee (which will now, presumably, have to be renamed) has urged Whitehall to be far more positive about devolution.
But even if Gove pays attention to such wholly sane prescriptions, he would have a huge battle putting much of it into effect, given the centralised entrenchment of the British state and the fact that policy areas crucial to any radical invigoration of city and regional economies outside the capital, such as transport, education and skills, are outside of his control.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, while the “levelling up” agenda has always been extremely, perhaps deliberately, hazy, it has never much resembled a drive to push up low wages, lessen job insecurity or foster material equality, and certainly not across the nation as a whole. To me, it has always felt much more like a coded re-endorsement of that set of anti-metropolitan grievances, fuelled by resentment of “London” as a metaphor for affluence, arrogance, condescension and, most untrue of all, economic parasitism, that led to the UK leaving the EU.
Gove himself told the Sun that a failure to keep the “level up” promise would be a betrayal of Brexit. He might not yet have told us much about how he intends to put that promise into effect, but he’s hardly giving the impression that helping the people of Remain City is a priority. We live in hope, but that’s the stuff that kills you.
Photograph: Michael Gove and fellow Tories on Teesside.
On London is a small but influential website which strives to provide more of the kind of journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive an action-packed weekly newsletter and free entry to online events. Details here.