So, what happens when the political calculations around levelling up change?

By Jessica Studdert | 25 May 2022

Levelling up is primarily an electoral strategy. Some might claim it as the most ambitious attempt to address deep-rooted regional inequality we have seen for years.

But its inspiration was less moral outrage at the injustice, more a rational objective to speak to a new post-Brexit coalition of voters in Red Wall seats.

So, what happens when the political calculations change? Recent events threaten to disrupt the flagship agenda we were told would be nothing short of system change for how the country is governed.

Since the White Paper’s publication in February, the cost of living crisis has consumed an increasing proportion of that precious Westminster resource: bandwidth. Amid the need to be seen to be doing something, ideally something quick and free, the supposedly cross-government levelling up missions are proving fragile. The headline-grabbing gesture to delay the planned ban on junk food promotions easily won out over the core commitment to reduce the gap in healthy life expectancy by 2030.

With the rhetorical focus on maintaining their inroads into Labour’s heartlands, the Conservative party’s own base has shown signs of being rattled when given the chance to vote. The Chesham and Amersham by-election loss to the Liberal Democrats was blamed on Government plans to enable more housebuilding. In response, the move to enshrine levelling up sits uncomfortably in the same Bill alongside measures to level down planning reform ambitions, directed at traditional rural Tory voters.

There were more signs of Southern discomfort in this month’s local elections, as the Conservatives lost notable ground in London and the South East. As we approach a General Election, it remains to be seen how tough the levelling up mettle really is.

There is a chance that, as Labour plays defence and the Tories play attack in key Northern seats, we could see an arms race on levelling up ambitions from both main parties that actually produces some meaningful policy progress into the next Parliament. But there is equally a risk that the lure of a more transactional retail offer is all too enticing, and we are left with nothing more than a few shiny new buildings beyond 2024.

Jessica Studdert is deputy chief executive of New Local


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