Amongst the media-led noise surrounding Government resignations over the last week, the future of key Whitehall policies has quietly been questioned.
And the future of Levelling Up is now less clear.
The first hint at potential change came via outgoing Chancellor Rishi Sunak. In his resignation letter he wrote, “We both want a low-tax, high-growth economy, and world class public services, but this can only be responsibly delivered if we are prepared to work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions.”
With the economic hits of Brexit and the pandemic, it’s clear that big decisions must be made on expenditure in the near future.
But what does this have to do with Levelling Up?
Making positive change
For the last three years, Levelling Up has been the cornerstone of Boris Johnson’s Government. Promising to drive investment across the country, Johnson said Levelling Up would be a “win-win” for the country and not a matter of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” as the Northern Powerhouse agenda was often accused of.
Whilst the policy of Levelling Up had its critics, there have been notable successes.
The Towns Fund has secured millions in investment for 101 towns across England, whilst the much anticipated National Bus Strategy has had local authorities, combined authorities and pressure groups engaged with developing more accessible and user-friendly services.
However, does a change in Government leadership threaten progress?
“Nothing is off the table”
The new Chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi MP, has already been characterised as someone that will prioritise tax cuts. Of course, this will have huge ramifications for the economy, which has one of the biggest deficits since 1947. For example, Zahawi has already stated that “nothing is off the table” when considering how to balance the next scheduled budget.
Logically, in order to afford any tax cuts, there would have to be budget cuts to accommodate them.
A key pledge from the Conservative manifesto was to fund an extra 20,000 Police Officers nationwide, whilst we are still feeling the impacts of COVID-19, so it would be safe to assume that the NHS and Policing would be safe from any cuts.
Perhaps Levelling Up will then have to feel the pinch?
The popular vote
The Conservative strategy at the next General Election could focus on its ‘Red Wall’ seats in the North and Midlands. These areas have been the prime beneficiaries of Levelling Up funding over recent years. Areas such as Ashfield, Hartlepool and Durham have all been supported through various “Levelling Up” funds.
Cuts to these areas would be foolhardy to a Party determined to extend its 12 years in power.
It’s clear that Levelling Up is a vote winner. According to a poll from YouGov, 60% of people believe Levelling Up funds should focus on the poorest areas in the Country. Whilst people in the North and Midlands are far more optimistic about Government spending in the region than their southern counterparts.
With this in mind, Levelling Up could survive, albeit in a different format. Funding for regeneration schemes could shrink and with it demands for “doing more for less” could be made by Central Government.
This will mean local authorities that are more creative and utilise public and private sector partnerships more effectively rather than solely relying on Government grants will be better placed to succeed.
A future in the balance
While all the uncertainty reigns, one thing is clear: the next few weeks – or even days – will be huge for the Levelling Up agenda. Particularly as Boris Johnson, it’s architect, is no longer at the helm.
While significant progress has been made in areas where other policy attempts have failed (who remembers Regional Development Agencies?!), huge amounts of work remains to be done.
And with a new Chancellor, a new Prime Minister on the horizon and the potential of a General Election around the corner, the future of Levelling Up is clearly going to be a topic of discussion.