We desperately need 'levelling up' but it seems the Tories are back to fob-off-the-north mode | Andy Burnham

It’s hard to reconcile Boris Johnson’s 2019 speech with Rishi Sunak’s budget, which has left the policy in tatters

  • Andy Burnham is the mayor of Greater Manchester

It pains me to admit it, but when the Conservative party put “levelling up” at the heart of the 2019 election, I thought they had latched on to the most potent political theme of my lifetime.

Were the Tories truly about to put the north of England at the front of the queue for major strategic investment? If they were, I wouldn’t have been able, or wanted, to oppose it. After all, it’s what I’ve always campaigned for.

It is still possible that this is what “levelling up” will turn out to mean. I hope it does. But after last week’s budget and coming on top of last year’s row about lockdown tiers, it is looking less and less likely. It feels as though Whitehall is returning to its default, fob-off-the-north mode.

From a powerful drive that could have unified the country in post-pandemic times, “levelling up” is at risk of becoming at best the latest in a long line of clever slogans without substance (see also “northern powerhouse”, “industrial strategy”, and “big society”) and, at worst, a highly divisive, highly politicised exercise in hand-picking winners and losers.

This is not what we were promised. When George Osborne came to Manchester seven years ago to deliver his northern powerhouse speech, he raised the expectations of the whole of the north, promising world-class intercity transport, digital connectivity and radical devolution. We need to think big, he said.

When Boris Johnson came four years later, he restated Osborne’s promises of ambition and devolution but with a greater emphasis on everyday transport. I had no problem with that. The new prime minister was right to focus on the simple injustice that a single bus journey in Manchester can cost more than £4 compared with £1.50 in London. In making a specific promise to help Greater Manchester build a London-style public transport system, he was correctly refocusing attention on improvements that will have more day-to-day impact on people’s lives and can be delivered within a quicker timeframe.

It is hard to reconcile the 2015 Osborne speech and the 2019 Johnson speech with the 2021 Sunak budget.

Instead of the promised large-scale strategic investment – linking towns to towns, towns to cities and cities to cities – we got a tactical scattering of funds to isolated, favoured places. From the much-vaunted towns fund, there were allocations to pay for the resurfacing of roads, the refurbishment of a rail station, and the renovation of a town hall.

Don’t get me wrong, these are important things. But will they really “level up”? And aren’t they the kind of bread-and-butter projects which, 15 years ago, councils would have had the funds to pay for themselves? Having shattered the foundations of local government finance the Treasury is now handing back small pots of ringfenced funding for basic community needs – but expecting great applause in doing so.

What was most worrying about the budget was Rishi Sunak’s new prioritisation of places in the queue to be levelled up.

In the past, the Liverpool city region was the biggest beneficiary of EU investment in England because of its higher overall levels of deprivation. But, on the criteria published last week for the community renewal fund, six of its seven boroughs did not make it into the top 100 priority places. Only one was given a place – St Helen’s – alongside Newark, Norwich and Herefordshire. You would be very hard-pressed indeed to justify how any of the latter three are more in need of community renewal than Knowsley, Halton or Liverpool itself.

In Greater Manchester, Salford was not made a top priority area for either the community renewal or the levelling up fund. This is hard to take when you look at some of the places that were. If you stopped 100 people in the street and asked them to name places that should be a levelling-up priority, I doubt one person would say Canterbury. Even Canterbury wouldn’t say Canterbury.

By definition, any credible “levelling up” drive must be led by needs, not politics. We are still waiting to see the criteria which have guided the government’s prioritisation decisions.

Of course, all is not lost. Levelling up is still the right theme for these times and there is time to rescue it.

I would encourage the chancellor to listen to the combined wisdom of the cross-party House of Lords public Services committee, who are encouraging him to refocus levelling up on the places hardest hit by Covid and on people rather than just infrastructure.

As we emerge from the pandemic there is a need for some national soul-searching as to why some communities have had a much higher death rate from Covid than others, and why the death rate in most of the north is more than double that in the south-east. The answer is to be found in the toxic combination of low-paid, insecure work and poor quality, insecure housing.

When I give evidence to the Lords committee later today, as well as calling on the government to publish its criteria for levelling up funds, I will support the call on the chancellor to refocus levelling up on places with the highest death rate from Covid. We also need to build resilience and prosperity through major, devolved investment programmes in housing, transport and skills.

An obvious place to start is with housing. If we are to meet our climate targets, we will need to retrofit almost every domestic property in Britain in the next 30 years. So why not start now in places where housing is poorest by improving people’s homes and reducing their bills? In the process we can train a generation of young people to take up the thousands of quality jobs that would be created to do this work.

That is why the budget decision to slash billions from the green homes grant is another head-scratcher, as was the shelving of the industrial strategy. Only a few years ago it was touted as the defining mission for the country. Areas like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands were invited by the government to set out local industrial strategies, and we went to enormous efforts to do so. How can it make sense to ditch evidence-based plans to boost future industry just as we are about to get into the serious business of pandemic recovery?

The more you study last week’s budget, the less it makes sense. Even though we heard the repeated commitment to level up – something I still want to succeed – the actual measures in Sunak’s plans have made it less likely to happen.

  • Andy Burnham is the mayor of Greater Manchester. He served as the Labour MP for Leigh from 2001 until 2017

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