Toby Lloyd is a former special adviser to Theresa May and Chair of the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Left Behind Commission on prosperity and community placemaking.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over two years since Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street for the first time and promised to “level up” the country. I missed the speech, as I was slipping out of the back door of No 10 at the time, having been stripped of my pass, phone and laptop, along with the rest of Theresa May’s advisers, as part of the brutally clinical hand-over ritual that each outgoing PM must go through.
To us policy hacks, regrouping in the sweltering heat of a nearby bar, “levelling-up” seemed like one of those sound bites that would be quickly dropped, to join May’s “burning injustices” and David Cameron’s Big Society in the pile of unifying concepts that never quite worked.
After all, few people know what it means, and many of those that do actively dislike the idea, as Rachel Wolf pointed out on this site – and even ministers have been accused of a “complete lack of understanding” of the agenda. In the wake of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, the logic goes, it’s time to drop all this nonsense and pivot back to the base.
But instead of dropping it, the Government has doubled down on levelling-up. There’s a £4.8 billion government fund bearing it’s name. The appointment of Neil O’Brien to lead the development of the forthcoming levelling-up white paper shows real commitment to the agenda – not just lip service to an electoral strategy. And Johnson chose to speak for a full hour on the subject recently. Clearly, levelling-up is here to stay.
Which makes it even odder that it’s still not clear what it actually means, and no agreed indicators to measure success or failure by. Last week Johnson seemed to imply that disparities in life expectancy were the best indicator of regional inequality, and even that he had single handedly raised the life expectancy of all Londoners in his term as Mayor.
Life expectancy is an excellent proxy for all sorts of things, and a very robust data point – so if the Government is making that it’s central metric of levelling-up it could silence the carping of the wonks.
And it’s obviously a good policy aim to level up life expectancy across the country. Given the new shift in electoral geography it may be smart politics too. But it’s not necessarily great comms to tell your new voters that they’re going to die sooner than your traditional base – especially if you don’t have a really good plan for how you’re going to change this.
In this regard, Johnson’s latest attempt to flesh out the vision was rather thinner. Much of his emphasis was on crime, big transport infrastructure, better broadband connections, and education. All of which are excellent subjects for public investment – but it’s hard to see how they will turn around the sense of neglect accumulated over decades in some of our most left behind places. HS2 is certainly not about to increase life expectancy in seaside towns that have seen better days.
Part of the problem is that whenever Johnson – or anyone else – tries to explain levelling-up, they have to grapple with big economic structural forces at the same time as hyper local factors; hard infrastructure as well as a more intangible senses of pride and community.
While big national kit is expensive, and often controversial, it’s at least something clear you can announce and eventually, hopefully, cut a ribbon in front of. Dealing with local issues from the Prime Ministerial pulpit can seem incongruous at best, patronising at worst. Although all politicians love a positive message of national pride for all, with or without implied criticism of all other nations for being just not quite as good as us, the resentments between different parts of the country are much harder for a PM to speak to.
The result can be vague, even incoherent, and easy to ridicule: you’re not going to reverse 50 years of deindustrialisation with a few quid for removing chewing gum from pavements. But despite all these vulnerabilities, it is the right approach, because the problems of left behind places, and of geographic inequality more broadly, really are both big and small, hard and soft, at the same time.
The dog mess and graffiti that spoil the local park really matters – as does the damage to town centres wrought by 1960s urban motorways and the decline of seaside tourism. Levelling-up, and left behind places, work as concepts precisely because they speak to both dimensions at once.
If you want proof that being left behindness cannot be boiled down purely to economic data, look no further than the Brexit referendum. The Index of Multiple Deprivation, an excellent source of data on poverty, tells you almost nothing about the likelihood of a place voting Leave or Remain.
By contrast, the Community Needs Index, formulated by Local Trust to identify which places really are left behind, has a strong correlation with voting leave. Poverty matters, hugely, but it doesn’t describe everything. We need a more subtle, more human, understanding of why some parts of the country feel neglected. Elected politicians often have a better nose for this sort of thing than policy wonks like me.
The politicians also have an answer to the technocrats’ critique that levelling-up lacks a precise metric. Goodhart’s law states that once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. This is because individual and organisational behaviour adjusts to hit the target, but frequently misses the point. This iron law of policy surely applies to concepts as messily human as levelling up: there can be no simple measure of levelling-up – but we’ll know it if we see it.
More serious is the risk that such a broad agenda creates the perfect conditions for waffly speeches with impressive but context-free numbers, and reports celebrating nice things happening in diverse places.
These are invariably a means of avoiding difficult decisions and trade-offs. Isn’t it lovely that this community group has got a grant to bring that abandoned Victorian workhouse building back into use as hub for local business and community activity! No need to ask why it had been left empty for decades, raise the spectre of tricky tax changes, or to worry about the future viability of those lovely new micro-enterprises.
The solution to these tensions is to return to the beginning. The entire levelling-up agenda is about place: places that feel left behind, people who live in places that have been poorly served by state and market alike for too long. Here the Government’s strategy is better than Johnson’s speech. There is real money on offer for improving town centres, for local transport, for communities to take ownership of the assets they need to shape change. To make this investment work, it has to be combined with a coherent attitude to localism, as Paul Goodman argued.
I would add that Whitehall also has to start trusting local people and, yes, local government a bit more and get over its addiction to competitive bidding for time limited pots. These waste huge amounts of energy as councils and community groups complete endless bids promising subtly different outcomes for the same projects – and inevitably mean that those best at playing this game win at the expense of the others.
This is no way to overcome division and level up. Better to follow the call for “localism on steroids” from Bill Grimsey, the former CEO of multiple high street business, and empower local communities to redesign their town centres to meet the needs of the 21st Century.
This is the territory that the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Behind Commission is exploring – and in the next few months will be proposing real reforms and investments to turn the good intent into reality. The real test of the levelling-up agenda will not be how it scores on socioeconomic metrics, but whether it can start a process of empowerment, improvement and investment that makes left behind places look and feel better. for the communities that live in them.