“Uniting and levelling up across the UK [is] the greatest project that any government can embark on,” said Boris Johnson when he promoted his Party’s flagship policy at the 2021 Conservative Conference.

After years dominated by Brexit and COVID-19 lockdowns, Levelling Up was seen by many as the Conservatives grappling with a policy agenda.

It wouldn’t just deliver economic boosts to the country’s poorest areas, but also cement the Conservative’s strength in the so-called Red Wall communities on the electoral map.

 

But has it worked out like that?

Reports last month stated that Levelling Up has not had the desired impact. Many projects are yet to start, many targets are set to be missed.

Some 12 targets were set by the Government in the Levelling Up White Paper in 2022. They included increases in education standards, digital inclusivity, transport connectivity, and living standards.

In March, the BBC reported that only 10% of Levelling Up funds had been spent, after the Public Accounts Committee found that the Government could not provide examples of what had been achieved by Levelling Up funding.

Elsewhere, the Guardian reported that, out of the 12 targets, only six were on track to be met. Education standards, skills growth, health outcomes, wellbeing, “pride in place”, and housing standards are all not on track – and in some cases going backwards.

 

So is Levelling Up dead?

On paper, the idea is not wrong.

Whilst the economic case for Levelling Up was obvious, the political case was even more interesting.

It’s predecessor, the Northern Powerhouse was a much vaunted policy agenda to drive growth and investment into the North of England.

Some saw it as nothing more than a marketing exercise. Whilst others (mainly Conservatives in the South of England) thought the policy would only drive resentment within their constituencies.

So, Levelling Up enabled the Conservatives to deliver targeted economic growth to hundreds of communities, especially in smaller towns and boroughs, that are not usually the beneficiary of government funding.

 

This focus on growth within smaller areas made perfect sense.

And there have been successes.

The Towns Fund is widely regarded as a success; 101 Towns received £3.6bn of funding for projects ranging from eco-hubs and train stations to community centres and active travel schemes.

The Towns Fund took a different approach; it provided communities with the money, the skills and inspiration to deliver schemes for themselves.

And they delivered.

But only 10% of overall funding committed so far cannot be ignored. There is a problem.

 

Perhaps the Towns Fund provides hope and a lesson for Government.

Devolving decision making to the towns, villages and communities who will benefit from Levelling Up may be the answer to this problem.

It’s clear that people want the power and means to transform their local areas. So the Government should go back to basics, and provide them the tools to do this.

Levelling Up doesn’t have to be dead. But local people must be given the power to resuscitate it.