Readers will recall the fanfare over David Cameron’s Big Society. We remember the expectations around Theresa May’s Tackling Burning Injustices. So we find ourselves now asking whether Boris Johnson’s Levelling Up will go the same way. Is Levelling Up a slogan or a strategy?
Some – including a Government minister – are understandably downbeat in their expectations. A national newspaper reported that ministers were reluctantly summoned to Chequers during their recess, where they would get just five minutes to present their departmental plans, with no new money on the table. Hardly the kind of briefing you’d expect on a flagship Government policy.
In Coventry, we haven’t just been talking about levelling up – we’ve been practicing it. We have dramatically turned around our schools. In 2013, 42% of our primary schools were good or outstanding. Through our partnership model, working on a status neutral basis, today 92% of our primary schools are good or excellent and we have been above the national average since 2016. We are transforming our city centre and our transport infrastructure, and bringing jobs and economic prosperity to the city.
But as we await the Levelling Up White Paper, we know there is a tension between No 10’s political ambition, the Treasury’s financial constraints, the Cabinet Office’s eye across all departments, and Michael Gove’s departmental agenda. The Government will use the White Paper to clarify whether the thrust of the policy is about levelling up the most deprived people or the most deprived places. Both are major policy challenges, but the policy solutions for each will be different.
Local government is central to driving levelling up, but I fear we could get overlooked. I worry that Michael Gove doesn’t have the time to make our case, given his role also spans Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, leading coordination with the devolved administrations.
And then the goalposts keep moving. This started off as a Devolution White Paper – hence many of us are eager to see that new powers are granted to local authorities to exercise at a local level, and to combined authorities at a regional level. The lesson of the pandemic is that councils are far better trusted by the public and far better understand our communities than the Government. Levelling Up must start with decentralisation of powers and funding to the councils that know the needs of our citizens best.
Levelling Up will not be realised until local government funding is made fit for purpose. Coventry is amongst the hardest hit councils with low core funding, and the unenviable double whammy of higher levels of council tax and lower levels of core spending power. Funding fragmentation is a major challenge. The short-term ring-fenced funding we are constantly bidding for has extended to 117 different funding pots councils can apply for – these need urgent simplification and rationalisation.
If an area is deprived and needs investment, then we shouldn’t have to pit ourselves against neighbouring authorities for funding. Levelling Up will require different solutions for different areas - the Government needs to adopt a lighter hand and give more freedom to councils. We know the Government has a preference for capital infrastructure, but sustainable revenue funding is critical to the services our residents demand.
And the political bias in funding must end. There are areas of major deprivation in Coventry, with a 12-year difference in life expectancy between some parts of the city, yet we weren’t a priority for the Levelling Up Fund. Meanwhile Lewes, Bromsgrove, and Central Bedfordshire – among the country’s most prosperous areas – were successful. This has to be corrected in future spending rounds in order for confidence to remain in the programme. The formula for the Levelling Up Fund uses economic output rather than income deprivation to rank beneficiaries. This means cities with relatively high economic output but also high levels of income deprivation will never be prioritised.
Accountability and measurement will be fundamental. The Government must set clear metrics so we can regularly judge the success of the agenda, and ensure Ministers continues to invest resource in the solutions that make a difference.
Levelling up is of fundamental importance to the work of local authorities. Local authorities are fundamental to the programme of levelling up. The time has come for the Government to translate the slogan into meaningful policy and deliverable actions.
Councillor George Duggins is Leader of Coventry City Council