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Hollow Monuments: The Reality of Boris Johnson’s Levelling Up Plan

The Prime Minister’s plan for regional rebalancing shows that he is more interested in building his personal legacy than improving lives, says Sam Bright

Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivering a speech at Dudley College of Technology. Photo: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street

Hollow MonumentsThe Reality of Boris Johnson’s Levelling Up Plan

The Prime Minister’s proposals for regional rebalancing show that he is more interested in building his personal legacy than improving lives, says Sam Bright

It has been a week of vacuous reports in Westminster: the Sue Gray report on Monday, the details of which have been kept secret thanks to the Metropolitan Police, followed by the Government’s ‘Brexit benefits’ paper, and now the long-awaited white paper on ‘levelling up’ – released today.

The Gray report aside, these documents signal the current position of the Vote Leave project – which is now forced to wrestle with the fact that empty slogans, the likes of which won the 2016 EU Referendum and 2019 General Election, convert into empty policies.

This is the case with the levelling up white paper – the document that seeks to establish the form and nature of the Government’s attempts to address regional inequalities.

The Vote Leave campaign has been so successful in recent years because it diagnosed the causes of widespread anger in deprived areas of the country. The white paper extends this diagnosis, with Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove introducing the document by saying: “For decades, too many communities have been overlooked and undervalued. As some areas have flourished, others have been left in a cycle of decline. The UK has been like a jet firing on only one engine.”

However, while the white paper points squarely at the problem, it does not point with such conviction at viable solutions – setting 12 vague ‘missions’ for levelling up, without a clear plan or sufficient funding.

Indeed, it is worth putting the Government’s levelling up commitments into context.

The four levelling up funds established by Boris Johnson’s administration have invested £4.7 billion so far – half the amount that the Government has written-off on duff personal protective equipment bought during the Coronavirus pandemic. The overall budget of the UK’s COVID ‘test and trace’ system is £37 billion, while Crossrail – the new, high-speed London train line – is expected to cost in excess of £15 billion.

In fact, Johnson plans to spend less on English regional development than either of his immediate predecessors, Theresa May and David Cameron, according to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Henri Murison, who runs the think tank, says that much of the Government’s levelling up agenda will be fundamentally “undermined through a lack of funding”.

There is also a historical context to consider.

Byline Timesanalysis has indicated that ‘Red Wall’ areas saw their local budgets cut by 34.2% from 2010/11 to 2017/18 – as the Government implemented an austerity agenda that retrenched state spending – compared to an England-wide average of 28.6%.

This had a measurable and detrimental impact on the lives of people in these areas. From 2014/15 to 2019/20, for example, the percentage of children in poverty increased in Red Wall seats from 29.8% to 34.6% – a jump of 16%.

Thus, to a large degree, Johnson’s levelling up commitments are merely partially repairing the damage inflicted on left behind areas for the past 12 years. This is borne out by the data – 59 local authorities that benefitted cumulatively to the tune of £1.25 billion from the first round of the Government’s ‘Levelling Up Fund’ lost £25.5 billion in spending power after 2010.

Yet, raw funding is not the only issue. How the funding is applied, to which areas and projects, is equally important.

On this measure also, the Government’s plans are ill-conceived, concentrating on small-scale infrastructure projects that look good on the leaflets of local candidates – the regeneration of a town centre or the improvement of a train station – but have comparatively little economic impact.

Indeed, the National Audit Office (NAO) – the independent public spending watchdog – states that the sort of infrastructure projects funded by the Government’s levelling up plans “do not usually drive significant growth”.

The Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities “has not consistently applied knowledge and key policy principles”, the NAO added – and “has a limited understanding of what has worked well in previous local growth programmes due to a lack of consistent evaluation or monitoring”.

At best, the Government’s allocation of levelling up funds appears to be slapdash – at worst it’s an example of ‘pork barrel’ politics, with cash funnelled towards marginal and Conservative-held constituencies.

Analysing the Government’s four levelling up schemes, the Guardian found imbalances and irregularities – not least that Mid Bedfordshire, an area partly represented by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, has received £26.7 million in funds despite being one of the fifth most affluent areas of the country.

Likewise, the constituency represented by Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid will receive £15 million despite being one of the wealthiest areas in England.

As concluded by Jonny Webb of the IPPR North think tank: “Forcing places to bid into centrally controlled pots of money, where outcomes are decided by an opaque criteria, is never going to level up”.


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Building an Emperor

Ultimately, levelling up is a political strategy, not a burning policy mission of Boris Johnson or his Government.

It helps the Conservatives in the short-term, by producing the content for its electoral campaigns. This was originally envisioned by Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings, who was reportedly asked to describe the plan for getting the Conservatives re-elected, and said “build sh*t in the north”.

But it also serves Johnson’s longer-term ambitions – erecting monuments that embody his political legacy. Perhaps that is why Cummings latched onto Johnson, believing that his vanity corresponded with a strategy that could win a general election.

However, interviewed recently by New York Magazine, Cummings has now seemingly tired of hollow monument-building. He told the publication that Johnson thinks “what would a Roman emperor do?” and that the Prime Minister fantasises about “monuments to him in an Augustine fashion”.

This has been a regular feature of Johnson’s political career – a trend that encompasses the failed ‘Garden Bridge’ proposed while he was Mayor of London, his desire to see London Bridge station decorated with gargoyles, and his rejected plan for an Irish Sea bridge.

None of these projects reached completion because they were wasteful and ill-conceived. Levelling up is merely a crystallisation of this Johnsonian impulse – to be remembered for having been in power, rather than for what he achieved thanks to it.

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