4 min read
Devolution in England is a positive step, but the balance of power is still overwhelming tipped in favour of Whitehall, and pots of money – like the Levelling Up Fund – remain centrally controlled and come with far too many strings attached.
As a researcher at the North’s leading think-tank, I regularly hear the question: “What does levelling up mean?”
After the Prime Minister’s speech last week, an answer from government remains elusive. As if aiming to demonstrate nebulousness, Johnson jumped from crime to transport, mental health to skills, and community sport to economic performance without any real coherence.
It doesn’t need to be this complicated – ‘levelling up’ shouldn’t become a catch-all term for everything government does. If this happens, the agenda will fail. So, what should levelling up mean?
The Prime Minister should drop boosterist language and pointing at small performative measures (like removing chewing gum from town centres) and instead explain how exactly he will reduce deep inequalities that cut across our country – creating the conditions for a good life for all, wherever they live.
Despite room for improvement in government communications, his speech finally acknowledged the huge challenges we face. The Prime Minister’s remarks clearly reflected the findings of IPPR North’s 2019 State of the North report, which revealed that the UK is the most regionally divided country in the developed world – and overcentralisation of power and resources in Whitehall is the root cause of this.
‘Levelling up’ shouldn’t become a catch-all term for everything government does
Our divides were allowed to develop over decades, deepened because of austerity, and are now worsening at an alarming rate. We are seeing accelerating unemployment, shrinking life expectancy, low wages, and reduced opportunities for people across regions like the North.
The challenge is urgent, but remains unaddressed: every moment that government doesn’t act with ambition, people experience consequences—around 1 in 3 northern children are living in poverty.
The good news is that the bold ideas needed already exist. Evidence shows devolution can help to deliver better policy for places. And, in a speech otherwise low on solutions, the Prime Minister did recognise this.
He acknowledged devolution’s role in reducing inequalities between East and West Germany, now smaller than the UK’s own divides. Yet, he is missing something crucial: the German system is built on high levels of decentralisation, large state investment, a role for regional leaders within central government, and large fiscal transfers between states. To achieve anything like that success, English devolution must be far more expansive and resources much larger.
Devolution in England is a positive step, but the balance of power is still overwhelming tipped in favour of Whitehall, and pots of money – like the Levelling Up Fund – remain centrally controlled, competitive, patchy, painfully inadequate, and come with far too many strings attached.
The upcoming levelling up White Paper is the Prime Minister’s chance to change course with a clear vision and ambitious policy. Its vision should radically reimagine how places across England are empowered, and its policies should furnish local leaders with the tools they need to level up locally. This can yet be the Devolution Parliament.
Local leaders need the ability to invest in jobs, in skills, or in community projects that build digital inclusion with full autonomy over the Shared Prosperity Fund. They need enhanced power over public transport to rebuild broken networks, like controlling commuter rail and fewer barriers to franchise buses. They need sustainable, single-pot funding—casting out crippling ringfences and conditions that counteract local ambition and stifle innovation to serve their communities. They need a fair framework of powers and funding, allowing all places to engage with the benefits devolution can bring.
In his speech, the Prime Minister asked for suggestions, so I’ll send him IPPR North’s evidence-based ideas for empowering England’s regions. But my message is simple and clear: Prime Minister, you must let go to level up.
Marcus Johns is a research fellow at IPPR North.
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