Paul Salveson on the hollowness of Michael Gove’s mission statement
Michael Gove’s weighty Levelling Up White Paper has been met with predictable scorn. It’s certainly long but lacks substance and real commitments to invest, repeating promises of ‘jam tomorrow’ that have already been made, such as in the Integrated Rail Plan.
In the wake of the Conservatives’ 2019 General Election victory, bridging the country’s regional economic divide suddenly became a priority. As Jennifer Williams wrote in the Manchester Evening News: “A new phrase is seeking to define the political lexicon of the 2020s. ‘Levelling up’ is now everywhere and nowhere. It is everywhere, in that it is mentioned at every opportunity by the Prime Minister and his cabinet, repeated back by headlines, academics and think-tanks; it is nowhere, in that nobody yet knows what it means in practice.
She continued: “Narrowing the regional divide is firmly on the agenda, post-electoral landslide. For years, many in this neck of the woods have been making arguments that are now becoming mainstream, as the political imperative turns towards holding seats not previously lavished with attention. So far, Number 10 has certainly been strong on transport and the need to improve infrastructure. Yet… the issues underlying this debate are far more complex and structural than that, having been exacerbated by a decade of unequal austerity. It will require imagination, compassion, determination and getting out of Westminster to rebalance the inequality between north and south, as well as rich and poor.”
The white paper runs to a total length of 332 pages. If you measured the usefulness of government reports by volume, it would certainly be up there as a winner. Yet various commentators have pointed out the lack of real commitment, some comparing the huge investment poured into eastern Germany post-unification. It’s full of good intentions; there’s much useful evidence on regional disparities. It presents ten ‘missions’, or promises to get things done. But how much is wishful thinking? It tells us that ‘levelling-up’ means:
- boosting productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in those places where they are lagging;
- spreading opportunities and improving public services, especially in those places where they are weakest;
- restoring a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost; and
- empowering local leaders and communities, especially in those places lacking local agency.
The white paper evokes the Italian renaissance where city states “combined innovation in finance with technological breakthroughs, the cultivation of learning, ground-breaking artistic endeavour, a beautiful built environment and strong civic leadership,” which is all very nice.
But coming back down to hard reality, what does it mean for places like my town of Bolton – a classic so-called ‘left behind’ town, with ‘red wall’ constituencies that turned blue, and in which many of its residents seem to glory in its accolade as one of the country’s ‘crap towns’, if social media is much to go by.
The town, and many others like it, has been the victim of three disasters. The first was the Thatcher years, which saw the collapse of its core industries, cotton and engineering, compounded by the imposition of stringent cuts in local government spending and privatisation of services. Secondly, the town had a lacklustre Labour administration that was overwhelmed by the challenges it faced, with little strategic vision and an assumption among senior councillors that their seats were safe. The third disaster was the election of a Tory government in 2010 committed to further austerity. The cumulative effect on a once-prosperous town was catastrophic, with the loss of well-paid (and unionised) jobs, a town centre full of empty shops and ‘pound stores’, and the usual panoply of anti-social behaviour, drug-related crime and the rest. The creation of out-of-town shopping centres was yet another nail in the town’s coffin.
So, what should ‘levelling-up’ mean to towns like Bolton? To be honest, I hate the term. It suggests that we all aspire to be like Slough, Basingstoke or Crawley: car-dominated, alienated suburbs. Actually, many people in Bolton want to be more like their image of how it used to be, with a flourishing town centre, locally-based jobs and a council that had real power to do things. They resented being coerced into ‘Greater Manchester’ and remain proud to be ‘Lancastrian’. In turn, the smaller satellite towns such as Farnworth and Horwich don’t like being lumped into a monolithic local authority, foisted on them in 1974.
So, the third objective (above) of ‘restoring a sense of community, pride and belonging’ isn’t something that Westminster can impose. In fact, it’s already there, but needs the powers and resources to do things which the fourth objective promises, of ‘empowering local leaders and communities’.
Somehow, I can’t see that happening under the present administration, and as yet there’s not much sign of it being done under one led by Keir Starmer.