It is possible to reconcile regarding Boris Johnson as the biggest bullshitter on Earth with recognising that not everything about his “levelling up agenda” has been crap.
It is also possible, albeit with the exertion of considerable self-control, to give at least some elements of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill a fair hearing while simultaneously spitting blood about the yawning chasm that divides the Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto commitment to “devolving power to people and places across England” and its sustained, spiteful attacks on the autonomy and powers of the Labour Mayor of London and, in particular, Transport for London throughout the pandemic and since.
Why my temperate tone? Credit is due to the Institute for Government (IfG) for its recent seminar asking what policies can “level up” economic performances between regions. That, let us recall, is actually what “levelling up” has been supposed to be about: not a drive for greater equality of wealth or income across the land, not a set of measures for narrowing economic disparities within localities, but an attempt to lift overall levels of productivity in English cities and regions outside Greater London and the wider south-east to something a closer to them.
The politics of “levelling up” have, of course, taken the form of crude anti-London populism, from the bent prospectus of the (Whitehall controlled) levelling up fund, to “Sir” Gavin Williamson’s simpleton cuts to higher education funding, to the “fairness” fibbing of Grant Shapps.
And it hasn’t just been the messaging. Actual, deliberate anti-London discrimination has taken place. But if we avert our gaze from such unseemly ploys for keeping the captured “red wall” from crumbling and concentrate on the policy detail, considered attempts to address ancient imbalances in the nation’s economic geography can be detected.
The IfG’s panel identified some. Thomas Pope, the institute’s deputy chief economist, said government “mission” policies have focussed on the right things, like schools, skills, transport, broadband and research and development.
So far so good. But not far enough. Even if all the most important missions were accomplished, “you wouldn’t see a really noticeable change in the economic geography of the UK,” Pope said. London and the south-east, in terms of productivity, would remain way ahead. More specifically, even if the goal for skills attainment were achieved by 2030 as scheduled, “it would only get the number of technical qualifications being started each year even to 2014 levels”.
It’s sobering to think that so little difference might be made after so much noise. It is also an indication of just how huge and structurally embedded is the dominance of London’s economy and, like it or not, how dependent on it the rest of the country is. And this has been the way of things almost forever.
Not for the first time I refer you to Labour’s 1964 general election manifesto and its promise, years before the mass de-industrialisation of the north of England, south Wales and elsewhere, to correct what it called the “drift to the south”. Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and “Boris” were not much alike, but they had that aspiration in common – one probably even further from being attained now than it was 60 years ago.
What next? Effective policies to strengthen the economies of the rest of England can only be a good thing, and it looks as if the current government, for all its turbulence and disturbing failings, has got some. But they need to be bolder and maintained for the (very) long term.
Keir Starmer, take note. And there are two other things the likely next Prime Minister should jot down. One is to continue to devolve power to city regions where in a coherent and effective manner (the IfG can help with that as well). The other is to slam the Conservatives’ anti-London roadshow into reverse.
The day when the UK no longer badly needs its global city to keep it going is so far into a theoretical future it would be reckless not to assume that such a day will never come. And London government, too, needs wise investment and more powers. Centre for Cities has shown that the capital has not been growing as fast as it was. Charles Wright has documented London’s pressing need for more infrastructure money which, if supplied, would pay dividends across the nation, including in the form of tax revenues for projects elsewhere.
The message, long ignored, is that you can’t level up Britain by levelling down London. The next government should end all the pretending that you can.