Power to the people

March 7, 2022

The Government last month unveiled its vision for ending decades of regional inequalities across the UK. Its ‘levelling-up’ white paper aims to “extend, deepen and simplify devolution”. Here, Steven Hugill looks at its plans in more detail.

Words by Steven Hugill


Talk about coincidence. When the Government unfurled its much-anticipated ‘levelling-up’ white paper last month, it did so just hours before International Optimist Day. Now, obviously I’m no Downing Street spin doctor, nor am I part of a Whitehall advisory team (thankfully so – the social side would leave me exhausted…). However, even I can see that releasing flagship legislation aimed at narrowing geographical imbalances – following decades of false-starts – next to a calendar event that encourages positivity when it may not necessarily exist – is smirk- inducingly ironic. The chronology, of course, was more by luck than design. Yet it was entirely appropriate. ‘Levelling-up’ – or whichever of the many guises devolution has taken across previous eras – has long been, for many, a topic of great scepticism, a shorthand outline for false dawns that have paid lip service to inequalities across the country.

This latest incarnation does at least enshrine pledges into law for the first time, which in itself is cause for some faith. Ultimately, though, it will come back to what it always has; for meaningful change to occur, we need tangible action, delivered through a cohesive and considered approach, that ensures election slogans move from rhetoric to real-life. Anything else and we simply spin a circle again that has gone round for a long time.

And that’s a crucial point, because for all the new graphics and the 12 ‘missions’ on the Government’s agenda, we aren’t exactly entering a new realm here. Calls for a more even distribution of power outside of SW1A, and, crucially, a refined system that allows such, have existed for a long time and across many regimes. Indeed, lamenting in The Guardian just days after the white paper’s publication, Tory grandee Lord Heseltine – he of previous attempts to reform local government – spoke of a “major failure of public policy that…we are still left with an expensive, multi-tiered local administrative machine” that stems all the way back to Lord Redcliffe-Maud’s efforts to deliver change decades ago. And the new paper isn’t going to sweep through like a panacea, righting wrongs and reversing years of inequality at a stroke.

What it can do, however, is act as a framework that locks Government commitments in black and white and allows for the attachment of measures against ministers’ aims and objectives when it comes to ‘levelling-up’. And that’s a start. Wait, though. Here comes the ‘but’. Despite its flashy promises, there are many who will ask why we should believe this administration – of which many senior leaders and a good number of backroom staff merrily partied their way through the pandemic while the rest of the country followed lockdown rules – is really committed to ‘levelling-up’? Why should we be confident in a paper that, allegedly, contains chunks of historical references from Wikipedia?

Why should we believe a Prime Minister, who has haemorrhaged public confidence and seen close aides disappear and new ones arrive with the same regularity that the capital’s buses skirt his famous front door, will see ‘levelling-up’ through Furthermore, why should we believe a Prime Minister who is happy to spout lies about the leader of the opposition at the despatch box before offering the meekest of rebukes when (would you believe it!?) the social media boot boys he so fired up accosted Labour’s front man in the street?

The so-called ‘red wall’ may have fallen at the last election, but the countless exposés of recent weeks mean a good number of voters are busy with their spades and trowels again – and are more than willing to throw Boris Johnson and his team into their footings. Against such a backdrop, the Government needs some quick wins and to generate some (positive) headlines to show off to the electorate as it builds towards the 2024 General Election. And its list of 12 ‘missions’ to do so are eye-catching enough, ranging from commitments to increase pay, employment and productivity across the UK, to dramatically lifting public investment in research and development outside the South East, and refocusing education spending to areas most in need.

Bluntly, though, while the white paper lacks nothing in aspiration, it’s difficult to see any of the Government’s goals being markedly achieved by its self-imposed 2030 deadline, given they’re backed by a financial parsimony akin to Mike Ashley’s reign at Newcastle United, rather than the new Saudi-backed regime’s splash-the-cash approach. So, with ‘levelling-up’ minister Michael Gove in Steve Bruce mode, if you will, what are we more likely to get in the short-term?

Well, there’s an olive branch for the ‘middle’ of our region.

Ever since the leaders of authorities in Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland rejected former Chancellor George Osborne’s metro mayor model, the area has been fractured when it comes to devolved powers, with regeneration figureheads Ben Houchen and Jamie Driscoll, in the Tees Valley and North of Tyne, respectively, sandwiching the North East Combined Authority. Bosses of the latter will argue it’s not done those areas too badly though, with Sunderland City Council, for example, well on with work – backed in no small part financially by Legal & General – to transform the old Vaux brewery site and other bases into shiny new commercial hubs and leisure destinations.

However, the white paper offers Durham the chance to sign up to a deal that would revise that arrangement by shifting powers from London to its county council chambers. And it also talks of making up and trying again with Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland, throwing them a rope to join the existing North of Tyne Combined Authority. Durham – with its new rainbow coalition, having swept a century of Labour control aside last year – already seems on board, with talks planned between bosses and the Government to thrash out further details. Elsewhere, though, things may prove a little trickier, and it’ll be interesting to see if there is enough meat on the bones of the metro mayor framework this time around to tempt authority leaders.

They were previously unconvinced about mayors for various reasons, including how much funding they would receive and whether they would be able to levy taxes. And those fears were played out again last month, when the New Economics Foundation released a report that warned the Government’s devolution plans risk failure unless mayors are handed proper control over local decisions. And that, really, summarises ‘levelling-up’ in a nutshell. The Government’s plans are not short in ambition, and the language used is certainly dynamic enough to rouse emotions.

But until people can properly see effective frameworks and financial backing to really make change happen around them – new jobs on offer, opportunities for young people, joined-up transport links, etc – many will still see ‘levelling-up’ as another round of empty promises.

And the question is, will they stand for that again?