When it comes to a floundering government doing its best to convince the nation it is succeeding, there’s nothing quite like an empty slogan that can be repeated over and over again in response to any form of scrutiny.
First it was the Northern Powerhouse initiative launched under Cameron and Osborne. Now we have “Levelling Up” – a long-promised plan to close the gap between the richest and poorest parts of the country.
Announced by Michael Gove last week, the levelling up strategy aims to improve services such as education, broadband and transport across the country by 2030.
After weeks of pressure on the government and the prime minister over reports of parties at Downing Street during lockdowns, and the subsequent Sue Gray report, the government is trying to pivot the public’s attention back to its policy agenda – with the Conservatives setting out how they will deliver what they promised in their 2019 manifesto.
The plans are made up of 12 “levelling up missions”, including pledges on jobs, skills, life expectancy, crime, public transport and home ownership.
It all sounds very lovely, in principle. There’s a promise to deliver more regional mayors à la Andy Burnham, with every part of England having access to “London-style powers” and their own mayor if they want it, with the expectation that devolved powers would be able to target spending more effectively.
There’s one flimsy promise to “improve wellbeing” across the country, while another aims to bring the rest of the country’s public transport “significantly closer” to London standards. All very lovely indeed, except the government has pledged no new money to make the 12 “levelling up missions” a reality.
Yep, that’s right. This government, led by Boris Johnson and with Michael Gove at the helm, is apparently going to transform the country Renaissance-style – even working to deliver super-fast broadband nationwide and 5G mobile data coverage – with no new funding.
Instead, it has offered up existing government policies, with funds already allocated to them, and written them into 12 bullet points. How radical.
Those of us who have keenly waited more than two years for the government’s levelling up strategy really were hoping for more. Some of the preamble is cut and pasted from Wikipedia. Some of the 12 points were cribbed from Theresa May’s industrial strategy. As Lisa Nandy, Wigan MP and shadow secretary for levelling up, housing and communities, so succinctly put it: “Is this it?”
In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, Gove’s 12 missions don’t go far enough to address the need for the creation of new jobs, with decent wages, so that people can “engage in local culture and community” – as the white paper sets out.
We can’t regenerate “left-behind” towns and cities if people can’t afford to shop on their local high street because so much of their earnings are swallowed up by extortionate housing costs and rising energy bills. People cannot engage in local culture and community when low wages mean they have to hoover up every extra hour of overtime to keep themselves afloat.
The last Tory government and its cruel austerity left behind a legacy of weakened public services and child poverty.
If this government wants to undo the damage caused by its predecessor, it’s going to have to work much harder.