Party conferences are always something of a circus, an opportunity for politicians to make the headlines, for protestors to make their point and for pundits to decide whose message has landed best with the public. They’re also a chance, however, for ideas to be tested, propositions to be debated and for a wider group of people to influence the policymaking process.
Behind the bright lights and soundbites of the Conservative Party conference this week a number of serious and significant debates have been going on, chief amongst them being… what on earth is meant by ‘levelling up’?
It’s clear that MPs and ministers instinctively feel they’re onto something with the phrase – it was a current running through a host of debates on the fringe circuit – but are still trying to work out exactly what they’ve invented. Most sessions were characterised by participants explaining what levelling up ‘means to them’, which might reinforce the cynical view that it’s a slogan in search of substance, meaning everything and nothing and likely to go the way of ‘big society’.
What on earth is meant by ‘levelling up’?
What’s different, however, is that levelling up (unlike big society) has a department responsible for delivering it, led by a Secretary of State widely regarded (even by opposition parties) as a reformer who ‘gets things done’ and containing, in Neil O’Brien and Danny Kruger, two of the most respected thinkers in the parliamentary party. What’s also different is that the Conservative Party now has a group of MPs representing traditional Labour strongholds who are on a mission to repay the confidence placed in them by bringing about real change in their constituencies – many of them places that feature consistently on the maps of ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘left behind’ areas. Some of these MPs are pushing the debate on through the Northern Research Group, an increasingly vocal backbench lobby aimed at influencing front bench policy in support of parts of the country arguably most in need of levelling up.
The new department and its team are only weeks old, which will explain why Michael Gove’s speech from the podium was considered, even by the faithful, ‘a bit thin’, but what was said by some of the key players during the conference does give us a few clues about what to expect when the rubber meets the road.
It is also recognised that variations in local identity and resource mean that in some areas this is not just about opening the door to more community ownership of assets or co-production of services, but will require intervention and investment
Firstly, levelling up is indeed about everything – and unashamedly so. Although Michael Gove will be carrying the can, this is seen as a cross-government effort, bringing all departments together in pursuit of a common policy – and political – goal. It’s about health inequalities, educational provision and job opportunities, recognising that these are inter-connected issues that people don’t grapple with in life as civil servants do in departmental silos. It encompasses major infrastructure projects but also recognises the need to build social infrastructure in local communities. Moreover, it’s seen by some as the lens through which we deliver our COP26 commitments, decarbonising the economy by investing in new sectors which drive regeneration and ensure a just transition to net zero, a point made forcibly by one of the 2019 intake Alexander Stafford as part of his campaign to turn his south Yorkshire constituency into ‘hydrogen valley’.
Secondly, devolution is seen as key to delivery. Mayors (Conservative ones of course) are lauded for their success in turning around their areas, but it’s notable that Andy Burnham is making known his intention to engage constructively with the new team in pursuit of a bigger deal for Greater Manchester. Politically the Conservative Party is looking for more blue mayors so it’s no surprise to hear ‘county deals’ being spoken about more often. There is more debate, and less agreement, about how to push power down further into communities given the sometimes competing voices of districts and parishes, but there is a stated commitment to learn the lessons from 40 years of regional and regeneration policy, which highlight the need to invest in community capacity building so that people feel they have more control over the decisions made about their local area and are able to drive improvements for themselves. Groundwork was established as an experiment to test some of these principles in the early 1980s and our experience of working within government-led regeneration frameworks from the Single Regeneration Budget to New Deal for Communities and the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal chimes with the findings of a report recently published by the think tank Onward.
Once levelling up becomes a funding stream or a programme it loses its power to be a rallying cry within the party – it also becomes easier for the opposition to attack as inadequate
It is also recognised that variations in local identity and resource mean that in some areas this is not just about opening the door to more community ownership of assets or co-production of services, but will require intervention and investment. The relationship between some figures in the Conservative Party and some sections of the voluntary sector is fractious, and needs repair, as acknowledged by Nigel Huddleston, busy outing himself in a number of meetings as (probably) the next charities minister. Despite these tensions there is a clear recognition that one of the roles the sector can play is to provide the infrastructure support that local volunteer groups need to thrive, to network and to connect their efforts into the plans and strategies of local authorities and other statutory bodies.
Rachel Wolf, co-author of the last Conservative election manifesto, pointed to the need for any long-term vision around levelling up to be accompanied by a programme of ‘quick wins’ – the hanging baskets and other visible symbols that signify a place is on the up and encourage people to buy into the process. The broken-window theory is back and a focus on improving the urban environment is seen as key to remedying the post-pandemic woes of the high street – turning town centres into places where people like to meet, socialise and live even if they’re doing most of their shopping online and working from home.
One of the DLUHC team’s first tasks is to bring forward a White Paper, which will set the tone and direction for its work. This is likely to be an analysis and a statement of intent and may still leave us with more questions than answers about what’s actually going to be delivered, by who and with what resources. I think this may be the point.
Levelling up is likely to stay a moving target, but it’s one that’s got the party of government at Westminster fired up
Once levelling up becomes a funding stream or a programme it loses its power to be a rallying cry within the party – it also becomes easier for the opposition to attack as inadequate. Levelling up was described by Neil O’Brien as a true ‘one nation Conservative’ idea and by others as a spur to individual aspiration – a means of achieving social mobility without having to rely on geographic mobility. For BEIS minister Paul Scully it means addressing the inequalities in London as much as evening out the disparities between north and south. For Brandon Lewis it’s crucial to the future prospects of Northern Ireland and a means of strengthening the Union. For Bob Blackman, a member of (what was) the MHCLG Select Committee, it’s nothing less than a ‘mindset shift’ for the whole party.
So, levelling up is likely to stay a moving target, but it’s one that’s got the party of government at Westminster fired up.
Whether it lasts the course or loses its lustre remains to be seen and may ultimately depend on whether the government can build a broader coalition willing to pitch in and make it happen.
Levelling up – the Groundwork way
To have a meaningful impact Groundwork believes that levelling up needs to:
Invest in people
Learn the lessons from 40 years of regional and regeneration policy, which point to investment in people as well as places and the need to ensure local residents feel able to influence decision-making.
Prioritise community engagement
Recognise and resource the community engagement work needed to ensure all voices are heard in the process, so that areas with limited community capacity don’t miss out.
Fund by place
Align funds from across central and local government into ‘single pots’ for each place, recognising the complex challenges faced by local areas and that people don’t live their lives according to departmental silos.
Pay attention to social and environmental infrastructure
Give all forms of infrastructure investment equal weight – we need better and more connected public transport and power networks but also a healthy local environment and places for people to meet and share ideas.
Make levelling up green
Use levelling up as the springboard for reducing carbon emissions, stimulating new enterprise in low carbon sectors, making every job a green job through education and training, and promoting more circular local economies that support community wealth building.
Blog by Graham Duxbury, Groundwork’s UK Chief Executive