In politics there are good ideas and good timing. For an idea to make impact you need both. Levelling up, the catch all for reducing regional inequalities is a good idea which is critical to both our economic success as a country and how that success is shared. As growth stalls, inflation soars and wages crunch, it’s increasingly the right time to deliver.
Levelling up is of course by no means the first attempt at reducing our country’s regional inequalities. In the last two decades alone there have been a range of attempts with mixed success, from Labour’s New Deal for Communities (which has previously been positively evaluated), the birth of Local Enterprise Partnerships (currently being integrated into the latest devolution plans) to the emergence of the Conservative’s Northern Powerhouse agenda (in many ways a precursor to levelling up). These all sound very familiar.
"As the two Conservative leadership candidates battle it out to win the votes of around 160,000 Conservative party members, we have seen staggering little reference to the central pillar of the government’s current electoral mandate, which is to level up the country."
The failure to close regional disparities is holding back the economic success of the country as a whole. As Professor Philip McCann puts it, “the economic geography of the UK is reminiscent of a much poorer country at an earlier stage of economic development”. The transition to a more mature economic geography raises some important tensions. For example, there are inevitable trade-offs about where investment should be targeted across the country. It also raises the question of how economic growth can be done differently, instead of replicating the wealth inequalities we see elsewhere. And how democracy at the local level can avoid the pitfalls of Whitehall policy making. Ultimately the long term success of our economy and how that success is shared across the country depends on a better geographic distribution of wealth, power and resources.
Yet as the two Conservative leadership candidates battle it out to win the votes of around 160,000 Conversative party members, we have seen staggering little reference to the central pillar of the government’s current electoral mandate, which is to level up the country. But once the reality of borrowed votes strikes, they must return to the inequality people in Great Britain now care most about. Whilst the soaring cost of living rightly dominates current political debate, the stunning silence on levelling up during this leadership campaign leaves a gap for other voices to set out their own vision.
"Levelling up is the right agenda for our country but it needs an upgrade."
That’s why I am so excited that IPPR and IPPR North are picking up the mantle and working on what a blueprint for progressive levelling up should look like. A vision that reflects the public’s hopes and concerns, draws on the experience of people living across the country and addresses our unacceptable regional inequalities in wealth, power and resources. With participatory research from Hastings to Stoke-on-Trent and Redcar we will build a citizen led vision for levelling up that any future prime minister would be wise to deliver.
Levelling up is the right agenda for our country but it needs an upgrade. It’s not yet clear if the next prime minster has the gumption to make it happen. If they don’t, other voices will take on the mantle, as many local leaders are already. Progressive levelling up is a good idea and more than ever, it’s the right time.
Zoë Billingham is the director of IPPR North. She tweets @zoe_billingham.
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