Richard Brown: One year on, ‘levelling up’ is more vague and contradictory than ever

Richard Brown: One year on, ‘levelling up’ is more vague and contradictory than ever

On 2 February 2022, the morning the Levelling Up White Paper was launched, the Today Programme’s Nick Robinson was in West Yorkshire. Towards the end of the programme he interviewed Annie Trueman, who was studying music production at Wakefield College, prefacing his interview by saying that many young people wanted to stay in Wakefield but were unable to do so because it lacked a university. I’m not sure he got quite what he wanted.

Did Annie feel she had a future in Wakefield, he asked.

“If I wanted to go into music production, I’d probably move back to Leeds. It’s just a better scene, there’s more places to work.”

Robinson persisted. “What would persuade you that you could make your future in this city, rather than having to get out of it?”

“If there were more studios?” Annie pondered, as if responding to a slow learner. “I could build my own, but then realistically, how many people would come to Wakefield to record their music? They’d be more set to go to Leeds and other bigger cities.”

The exchange has stuck with me throughout the year since – a year in which “levelling op” has been much debated but not much advanced. Without dissing Wakefield – home of The Cribs – a big city like Leeds will always act as a more of a magnet for musical talent. In many ways, the music industry is the epitome of agglomeration economics – the ability of big cities to nurture productive clusters of expertise. Bands learn from each other; they swap musicians and ideas; they support and are supported by an ecosystem of recording studios, gig venues, musical instrument shops and drug dealers.

The discussion also highlighted some of the tensions at the heart of the White Paper. The government knows it wants to reduce “geographical disparities” but is less clear about how these should be defined or how this outcome should be measured. It professes belief in the power of cities as focal points for modern economic growth (proposing a “globally competitive city” in “every area” of the UK by 2030). But it also celebrates a poster in Teesside, offering “Stay local, go far” as its rallying cry, and decries the idea that in many parts of the UK, “if you want to get on you need to get out”. The kid in Hartlepool shouldn’t have to move to Middlesbrough, let alone to Newcastle or London, to pursue their dreams.

Two Prime Ministers later, Michael Gove is back in the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities, and “levelling up” has been supplemented by “everywhere” – one of Jeremy Hunts “Four Es”, and every bit as spatially vague as its predecessor. To borrow the title of the Oscar-nominated film, the government really wants levelling up to be Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.

I’m not sure this destructive ambiguity is sustainable or helps the government. The rows over the distribution of Levelling Up Fund money are a case in point. It is to be spread round the country because “everywhere” needs “levelling up”, and then the allocations are criticised for being awarded to a run-down garrison town in the Prime Minister’s (generally affluent) constituency, rather than spent on inner city projects in Birmingham. The government is stuck between economic and electoral logic – damned if they focus funding in a few places where it can really make a difference, and damned if they spread it more widely.

There is a way through this, but it requires a level of political courage the government has yet to show. The approach should be to say that the UK’s larger cities, including London, are the heart of the economy and will continue to be so. Towns and smaller cities can benefit from proximity, from commuting, from home-working and supply chains, but existing cities will form the foundations of future growth. Government will need to invest directly and swiftly in some significant new projects – such as Northern Powerhouse Rail – but should otherwise stand back, supporting city leaders in raising funds to build the infrastructure they need, just as they supported London in raising funds to build the Elizabeth Line and North London Line extension.

Pursuing these policies would not be obviously in the government’s short-term electoral interests. But their chances of winning the next general election look slim in any case, and a revitalised 21st Century Conservatism cannot be founded only on the rural villages and declining industrial towns of the 20th. Refocusing “levelling up” on the UK’s cities may not only be the right thing to do politically. It could even sow the seeds of an urban revival for a party that was once as comfortable and successful in the inner cities as in their suburban and rural hinterlands.

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