Now Brexit ‘is done’, levelling up seems to have become the Government’s new flagship policy for 2021. On paper, this sounds like good news. In practice, a number of issues cast doubts on whether rebalancing our deeply unequal economy will turn into reality.
The first obstacle is a consistent lack of clarity as to what levelling up actually means. Within the Government itself, different departments seem to prioritise different approaches. Some see investing in large infrastructure projects as the best way to turn the fortunes of so-called ‘left-behind’ areas. Others have used more nebulous concepts such as ‘improving life chances’, while those sticking to more orthodox economic narratives argue the main focus should be to ‘improve productivity’.
It also remains unclear what areas should be ‘levelled up’. ‘Left-behind’ places do not correspond to a simple North-South dichotomy and are not characterised by the same set of socio-economic dynamics. This means it’s hard to agree on the metrics that capture what or where left-behind areas are and can reflect any actual progress on the levelling up agenda.
While evidence shows that over-centralisation is the root cause of regional inequalities, the Government continues to propose measures that are essentially run from the centre – as reflected in the recent debates over the allocation and management of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. This, together with the further postponement of the English devolution White Paper to a date ‘towards the end of the year’, suggests the centre will continue to hold a strong grip over the levelling up agenda.
As a result, levelling up resembles a jigsaw of disparate ‘pieces of policy’ that do not fit into an overall, coherent picture. The Government needs to develop a clear vision and strategy and come up with a long-term policy agenda that leaves asides party political needs and focuses on measures that benefit all people and places. It should be built on consistent and interconnected priorities. Investing both in physical and social infrastructures to boost the economy, while improving quality of life and real devolution of power to the subnational level, would be a good starting point.
Dr Arianna Giovannini is deputy director of the Local Governance Research Centre (LGRC) and associate professor/reader in local politics and public policy at De Montfort University