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‘The Country has Noticed the Conservatives’ Lack of Levelling Up’

Since Boris Johnson’s 2019 pledge, the public has received more of the same – austerity and higher taxes from the Government and, in many cases, cash-strapped local councils

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Photo: PA/Alamy

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The Government could have used Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ project not just to transform Britain’s regions, towns and poorer cities, but also to redraw the political map of the UK. That it has failed spectacularly to do both is a key reason why it is now facing political oblivion and why the Conservative Party will find it hard to rebuild public support. 

In 2019, levelling up was a masterstroke. Even then, the public was well aware that a decade of under-investment had damaged public services and made inequality between and within regions ever more stark. 

Johnson’s pledge to level up the UK – combined with specific promises to increase the number of nurses, doctors, police offices and hospitals – signalled a radical change from the policy of austerity pursued by his predecessors. 

Had Johnson been true to his word, levelling up could have transformed Britain’s regions, investment could have poured into regional transport and other infrastructure, and the NHS and other public services could have full quotas of staff instead of record shortages. 

Instead, as we approach another general election, the failure of levelling up has been made clear in a report published by the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee last week. 

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As of last September, it found that local authorities had spent only £1.24 billion of the £10.47 billion the Government promised to tackle regional inequality across the UK. 

Crucially, the committee found that the Government has nothing in place to measure this policy’s impact in the long term. In other words, as has been pointed out, there is “no compelling evidence” that levelling up has achieved anything.

As recently as 2022, the Government were talking up the transformative impact of levelling up.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said in 2022 that the economic prize was potentially huge: “If under-performing places were levelled up towards the UK average, unlocking their potential, this could boost aggregate UK GDP by tens of billions of pounds each year.”

The disconnect between this rhetoric and the reality could not be more stark.

Since 2010-11, local authorities have experienced a 27% real-terms cut in core spending power due to reduced central government funding. Eight of the 317 English local authorities have effectively declared bankruptcy since 2018.

In the most egregious example, Birmingham City Council – Europe’s largest local authority – is to severely reduce or do away with a swathe of council services in pursuit of savings of about £300 million. This is the deepest programme of local cuts ever put through by a UK council.

Cuts will impact some of the most vulnerable groups in Birmingham. Spending on children will be cut by millions, including cuts to an early help service that helps families in crisis and to transport for children aged over 16 who have special educational needs. 

Youth services will be almost halved. Spending on the arts will now be zero. Eleven community centres are being sold off. Highway maintenance, street lighting, recycling, bin collection, and street cleaning suffer. Yet residents face an increase to council tax of 21% by 2026 – a cruel fate for residents facing years of cuts to what, for many, have been essential services. 

But it isn’t just Birmingham. In 2019, the entire country was promised increased investment, public services, and a restoration of the kind of public realm the Conservatives had dismantled over the previous decade.

What the public has received is more of the same – austerity and higher taxes from the Government and, in many cases, cash-strapped local councils. 

This is one of the main factors damaging the Conservatives’ poll ratings. They have wildly over promised and under delivered in a way that is obvious to anyone using public transport, the NHS, education, or other public services, or indeed anyone walking down their local high street. 

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In 2019, Boris Johnson explicitly thanked Labour voters who had ‘lent him their vote’. He said “we have won votes and the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before” and that “those people want change”.

“We cannot, must not, let them down,” he added. “We must recognise the reality that we now speak for everyone from Woking to Workington, Clwyd South, Sedgefield [and] Wolverhampton.”

He and his successors have betrayed that trust – a betrayal that will take a generation at least to overcome.

Those voters in Sedgfield, Clywd South, and Wolverhampton will not be so quick to trust a Conservative next time, whatever their policies and whoever their leader. 

But the failure of levelling up – and the prior decade of austerity that preceded it – is doing deeper harm to our politics and public realm

Resolution Foundation research shows that living with crumbling public services undermines people’s trust in the ability of the state to effect change for the better, whoever is in power. 

“This isn’t a small problem,” says the Resolution Foundation’s chief executive, Torsten Bell. “Change requires citizens to imagine a better future so they can embrace the disruption involved in getting there.”

This warning is consistent with wider research looking across 166 elections post-1980. It found that austerity measures tend to reduce voter turnout but also boost votes for non-mainstream parties – hence, at least in part, explaining last decade’s UKIP popularity and the more recent rise of Reform. 

Labour’s task, if as expected it wins a sizeable majority in the next election, will be not just one of rebuilding public services, but of rebuilding faith that politics can make a real difference to lives and communities. 


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