Yesterday’s levelling-up proposals were full of welcome and long-term ambition but the jury is still out, says Matthew Morgan   

Matthew Morgan

Matt Morgan is director of the Quality of Life Foundation 

There is no denying the necessity for levelling up. Disparities between the haves and have-nots have been growing for decades. Just recently, behaviour in the Westminster bubble has only served to accentuate the disparity.

Even if it were not for the bad taste left in voters’ mouths, we are already two years into a parliamentary term for a ruling Conservative party for whom ending inequalities was supposed to be a manifesto centrepiece. The danger for the government is that Michael Gove’s announcement is already too late.

>> Also read: Industry underwhelmed by Gove’s levelling up vision

It certainly feels as though the levelling up agenda has appeared at the top of the pile at an opportune moment. As if the combined effects of Brexit, the pandemic and the climate emergency were not enough, we are faced with a drop in living standards that is almost as precipitous as that of people’s trust in politicians.

If ever there was a time to redress the inequalities and disparities in our country and make a new social compact, then this is it.

And, once you get beyond the history lesson, with its rich canvas of Medici Italy and the industrial revolution, there is much to commend in the ambition and breadth of the report.

It is the long-term vision that is most welcome; short-termism, determined largely by electoral cycles and shareholder reports, is one of the key failures of industry and government, and has a detrimental effect on most sectors, including housing and communities, whose improvement is our own organisation’s purpose.

A focus on geographic disparities is welcome, too, coming as it (hopefully) does with the sort of place-based approach that many in the planning, public health and investment sector have been calling for.

As a charitable organisation committed to improving people’s quality of life through the creation and care of better homes and neighbourhoods, we are particularly heartened by the inclusion of health and wellbeing as key “missions”, especially if policy is to be based on evidence and measured over time.

But the question must be asked: is this whole endeavour really going to work?

As long-term as the ambition, how sure can we be that “levelling up” will survive as a concept, let alone as 12 hugely complex and competing “missions”. What is holding it all together, beyond the political will and controlling interests of the prime minister and his current cabinet?

Local authority planning departments have been eviscerated in the past 10 years

Others have pointed to the problems of funding such a massive undertaking, and the government’s record is not great on public finances. Despite attempts to fund and empower local communities directly, local authorities remain the single most effective way of distributing money and services at a local level.

But central government funding for local authorities fell in real terms by over 50% between 2010–11 and 2020–21. “A strong planning system is vital to level up communities”, but local authority planning departments have been eviscerated in the past 10 years.

And, despite the focus on six capitals and other modes of understanding – which are all fascinating and useful – there does loom over all this the monumental task of tackling the climate emergency. It is telling that in this historically skewed vision of Britain, the industrial revolution merited almost as many mentions as the climate change it has caused.

We will go along with it, of course. There are too many good people doing too much good work that is committed to improving people’s lives bound up in so much of this. And sustained government funding is going to be key to the success of any of this.

But is it the clarion call we have all been calling for? Will it go down in the annals of history of which it is so fond? The jury remains very much out on that one.

Matt Morgan is director of Quality of Life Foundation