Levelling up is cancelled. It is so yesterday, past its sell-by date, rather Boris Johnson, defunct. Tory MPs have been given orders to drop it as a mere soundbite since “nobody knows what it means”. Instead they should use “community enhancing” and something called “gauging up”.
There is no limit to the linguistic banality of modern British government. The proof is in this week’s presumably final bonanza of levelling up gifts from Rishi Sunak, announced in Blackpool. Out of his sack pops a new seafront for Cleethorpes, a high street for Catterick, an “obesity project” for Farnborough, an “AI campus” for Blackpool (no kidding), a Brexit relief road for Dover, a health centre for Camden, “step-free access” for Colindale tube station, buses for Teesside, a ferry for Shetland – on its goes, like a Lego catalogue.
In any other country these would be routine spending projects decided quietly by local politicians and officials. They would be funded by local taxes and borrowing, or met within a central block grant. Only in Britain do such petty projects have to be taken to London and their proponents queue up, cap in hand, waiting on the generosity and whim of some gracious ruler. The operation is not so much Santa Claus as Louis XIV.
The total sum allocated from this year’s so-called “shared prosperity” bounty is £2.1bn, supposedly to “rebalance” the British economy in the north and south. In reality, it does no such thing, since, we are told, grants must be bid for and judged “on their merits”. Only one bid in five is successful, even though a principal purpose of the programme is supposedly to atone for the cut of more than 20% in local government spending during a decade of austerity.
The true gulf between local and national investment in infrastructure in Britain is obscene. Levelling up’s £2.1bn for 2023 compares with about £5bn a year spent by the Treasury on just one Johnson vanity project, the £100bn HS2 railway. How can Sunak possibly tell nurses and teachers he is short of money? HS2’s sole merit is to offer more capacity for home counties commuters into London’s Euston station. Yet the desperately needed east-west railway between Leeds and Manchester has been cancelled. Meanwhile Manchester can eat its heart out while London celebrates the opening of Europe’s most splendid new underground, the £19bn Elizabeth line.
As if to ram home his exasperation with levelling up, Sunak has cancelled its cruellest gesture, the summary death sentence passed in November on the English National Opera. To prove levelling up meant business, this had been sacrificed by the Arts Council for not being as posh as the Royal Opera. It was fobbed off with a suggestion that it move to Manchester, like a disgraced priest exiled to a heathen outpost of empire. Now the ENO may yet stay in London.
All that said, levelling up should not be dismissed out of hand. Johnson may have been chiefly concerned to favour his former Labour, “red wall” seats in the north. But there is no argument that Britain’s north-south divide is appalling, one of the widest gulfs between rich and poor areas of any of the world’s developed economies. It is ironic that areas that were most pro-Brexit are its chief victims.
As so often with Johnson, catchphrases could not convert into policy. Ten years of austerity have left all councils in Britain struggling to meet their statutory obligations to policing, social work and community care. There is virtually no money for discretionary local projects. This has led to the growth of the present ad hoc handouts, pioneered more than 30 years ago by Lord Heseltine, when he was environment secretary under John Major. They were awarded on a competitive basis, with London and the south-east tending to win by virtue of their expanding populations and more enterprising councils.
The result is the present parody of Christmas. The big money pours into favoured ministerial projects – motorways, airports, nuclear power stations, universities and hospitals – but local ones depend on Whitehall charity. There would be dribs and drabs for a bus service, a startup business, some brownfield housing or a civic museum. Any marginal seat MP had only to ask. Freeports were invented by Thatcher but discontinued in 2012 as pointless. Now they are strangely being revived.
The geographical imbalance in Britain’s economy may well lie at the root of the much-debated decline in its prosperity. It will not be corrected by headline-grabbing ministerial gestures. As was indicated by levelling up’s forerunner, Cameron/Osborne’s “northern powerhouse”, rebalancing will require massive attention to reducing the magnetic appeal of London and the south-east, notably to creative young people. What is clear is that this must start with leadership, with decisions and resources devolved to local electors and their councils, as happens in the booming cities of Germany, France and Scandinavia.
It is laughable that a London official should decide if Cleethorpes needs a new seafront or Shetland a new ferry. Access to central and local tax revenues and discretion over their use must be restored to elected councils. Keir Starmer has got the point. He has pledged to “take back control” for local democracy. But every party leader says that in opposition. None has ever done it. What exactly does Starmer mean by control? Or will he too degenerate into government by handout?
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist