Last week was a big one for “levelling up”. News that the government is to row back on the scale of pledges to deliver improved transport infrastructure for the north of England brought understandably angry responses from northern newspapers and politicians alike. The cancellation of HS2’s eastern wing and the significant downgrading of Northern Powerhouse Rail were subsequently announced. Transport for London’s equally miserable “managed decline” story emerged alongside these, a reminder that “no expense spared for the South” accusations are outdated and perhaps unwarranted. But it is hard to argue that the North hasn’t been let down.
The stripping of devolved powers from Transport for the North, like the refusal to provide TfL with a long-term financial settlement, indicates a Whitehall power grab, though government has presented its “new approach” to transport infrastructure in the North as one of timing: Boris Johnson says the scheme originally promised would take too long to deliver, leaving the North without the transport improvements it needs for decades. To suggest otherwise is “total rubbish,” he declared.
Given that all such infrastructure investments take a lot of time, this seems a thin argument. And as week turned to weekend, national coverage began to question whether this represented a major betrayal of this government’s central policy pledge. How can you “level up” the “left behind” part of the country known as “Not London” without huge investment in transport infrastructure?
But is this really means curtains for “levelling up”, as some believe? I think it speaks to a wider truth about the slogan.
Despite having a government department named after it, “levelling up” remains a deliberately nebulous agenda that can mean different things to different people. To those who think about and debate the UK’s deeply-entrenched regional inequalities, it means long-term planning and investment in things like physical and digital infrastructure, research and development, and the devolution of power and resources which might address regional differences in productivity, life expectancy, educational attainment, skills and opportunities. That is a long-term project to overturn decades, if not centuries, of history and shift the nation’s economy away from its intensive concentration in the southeast corner of England.
However, there is another definition. This different version of “levelling up” is more about tone. It means responding to the voices of smaller, mainly Leave-voting settlements across the country, from ex-industrial towns and poorly-connected coastal communities to affluent homeowning shires. These places vary hugely, and many are less “left behind” and more “very nice places to live, thanks”. But what connects them all is that they are not cities. They may want different things, but they are alike in not wanting what the “liberal metropolitan elite” wants. To some voters, “levelling up” probably also involves kicking London a bit too.
The pages of Conservative Home have occasionally echoed these sentiments, framing “levelling up” in terms of civic pride. The argument goes roughly like this: people don’t want a high-speed train to connect their town to a big city, making where they live gradually more “city-like” in terms of growth, development and demographics. Rather, they want to live somewhere that doesn’t look run-down, has decent public services, and that difficult-to-define sense of purpose and decency that engenders “pride”. And they are going to want to see some “levelling up” results, and soon.
Politically-minded people have noted that this may be deliverable, with relatively small amounts of cash, within a parliament or two. For government elected in 2019 on the strength of “borrowed” “red wall” votes there is a serious need to have something to show for all the “levelling up” rhetoric before the next election.
There is little in this for London – it simply isn’t about the capital. It is about place and politics. It isn’t about people, poor or otherwise. Equally, it isn’t about cities, productivity and connectivity – even cities in the North of England and Midlands. It is primarily about making the blue parts of this map feel that they have been listened to.
That doesn’t wholly explain the cancellation of HS2’s eastern leg. There is a convincing argument that the UK invests much less than it should in its infrastructure overall and a broader point about successive governments failing to invest in long-term projects that subsequent governments will take credit for. The National Infrastructure Commission was meant to take some of the short-termism out of decisions like this, but it has power only to recommend.
Even so, bear in mind that, with “levelling up” such a blank canvas, many of us take it to mean “doing things I think are important”. Journalists, politicians and think-tankers tend to care deeply about trains – given the nature of their work, they tend to use them, rather than buses or vans. But for most voters, and maybe most national politicians, “levelling up” might not be about trains at all.
Centre for London polling back in 2019 showed that although people outside the capital tend to think that London gets more than its fair share of investment in public transport, they are not jealous of Londoners’ commutes. Londoners have the longest average commute times in the country and some of the most overcrowded trains.
Outside the capital, people are much more likely to live close to where they work, and to walk or to drive. Do most people across the UK really want a train to better connect them to a big city? Or would they rather see the government invest in and improve the place where they, in many cases, choose to live?
“Levelling Up” simply doesn’t mean what some of us want it to mean. Perhaps journalist and politicians arguing for long-term policies to improve things for people across both London and “Not London” need a new approach.
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