All Governments come to office with grand visions. Some recent Prime Ministers have arrived offering a variant of St Francis’s prayer, offering to heal divisions and shed light. Boris Johnson’s language was more that of the Eton Common Room than the Sunday sermon but some of the sentiment is the same. His Government is going to level up growth.
There are good reasons to be sceptical.
But it strikes me that there is something important in this part of the new Government agenda, regardless of whether of whether you support it or not. This optimism comes from the Prime Minister’s experience. As Mayor of London, the financial devolution proposed by his Finance Commissions, on the first of which I served, were frustrated by HM Treasury. Like the rest of us, he found his proposals for service devolution were given short shrift by a contemptuous Whitehall. And around him are people who remember the experience and are out to deliver change. The Government appears to have the right ambition for the places most of us live in and where, despite growth and considerable regeneration spending, the glories of a distant past seem to outshine present day realities.
I, like some of you I expect, find a range of current Government policies regrettable, perhaps too its modus operandi. There are reasons to be concerned for our institutions even if, in some important areas, deep change is needed. The building of a more spatially balanced and inclusive form of growth is a task that Westminster and Whitehall have failed to fully embrace. That has got to, and looks set to, change.
As the Government sets about its task, it is right to invest in towns (and cities). But places will be helped rather than profoundly changed by the policies on offer thus far. This is because the economic forces that are making some towns more prosperous and hollowing out others are much more powerful, more poorly understood and harder to change than we are yet as a country ready to acknowledge. That said, the link between towns and successful cities is a good start for building successful policy in many places.
The biggest issue in many places is lack of access to decent jobs and life-improving skills and the poverty, poor health and lack of aspiration which flows from this. In his quest to level up growth, the Prime Minister would do well to act on the findings of Michael Marmot’s latest report on the subject, issued last week.
And then there is Brexit, along with the other virus and climate change-related headwinds into which our underpowered economy is sailing. I find it hard to square the fiscal activism needed to tackle these and our levelling-up challenges with increased trade barriers, lower migration and possible relative short-term isolation.
Even where there are serious grounds for optimism, important choices lie ahead. There is a case for some of the humility of St Francis’s prayer as we face up to some of the most testing challenges of our own and recent generations.
Mike Emmerich is founding director of Metro-Dynamics