Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
How exactly does levelling up work? The aspiration is unimpeachable and the slogan pithy. But how does a government go about realising it? Imagine that you’re the official in charge of enriching one of our poorer regions. You sit at your desk, you open your laptop. Now what?
Part of the answer has to do with infrastructure. That’s the easy bit, the bit that the PM, with his boyish enthusiasm for bridges, railways and airports, most enjoys. But a £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund is not, on its own, going to turn Dudley into Dubai or Sunderland into Singapore.
A certain reshuffling of government departments might help at the margins. When, for example, the Department of International Trade moves 500 jobs to Darlington, it slightly boosts the economy of County Durham. But it does so at the expense of other regions, since those jobs are maintained at public expense.
So what can ministers do? How might they stimulate the generation of new wealth rather than simply pushing piles of cash around? The obvious answer is one that, for some reason, is rarely heard these days: more localism.
Let’s stick, for a moment, with Teesside. Labour, in retrospect, made a bad mistake when it held the Hartlepool by-election on the same date as the regional mayoral contest. Ben Houchen, the incumbent Conservative Tees Valley mayor, romped home with an astonishing 72.8 per cent of the vote. Why? Because he is seen as an effective local champion who stopped the airport from closing, is redeveloping the former steel works at Redcar and is turning the region into a freeport.
It is an iron law of politics that, the bigger the unit of government, the less efficient it becomes. Town halls are by no means perfect, but they are far less likely than Whitehall departments to preside over monumental cock-ups involving consultants and computers. So why not extend the model? Why not push more powers out to local people?
In 2008, Douglas Carswell and I co-wrote a book called The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain. It set out a comprehensive agenda for the diffusion, democratisation and decentralisation of power.
Some of its ideas were successfully implemented by the Coalition government which took office two years later. A recall mechanism allowed local voters to challenge an unpopular MP. Proposals could be forced onto the Commons agenda by petition (people tend to forget that this is how Brexit first made its way into Parliament). Whips lost some of their patronage powers, and parliamentary committees were elected. MPs’ expenses were reformed.
Other ideas turned out to be less successful. Locally elected sheriffs were watered down until they became Police and Crime Commissioners. I have always disliked that name: it is boring, technocratic and inaccurate (read literally, it suggests that PCCs are responsible for crimes). But, in a depressingly ahistorical spasm, Whitehall decided that sheriff sounded “too American”. Nor were the PCCs given anything like the powers we had proposed. In any event, the reform never caught the public’s imagination. People carry on grumbling about woke coppers without it seeming to occur to anyone that PCCs are there precisely to ensure that the police’s priorities don’t drift too far from everyone else’s.
Our biggest idea, granting English counties and cities the sorts of power that are exercised by Holyrood, wasn’t tried. It never is. Central governments are not usually in the business of devolving power. In almost every democracy, the long-term tendency is the other way – driven, in part, by media cultures which make it almost impossible for a minister to say “this is nothing to do with me – talk to the local council”.
Go back, for a moment, to the idea of freeports or special economic zones. The original example, Shenzhen, was a huge success. It didn’t simply suck activity in from neighbouring provinces. It generated new wealth, because it had real power.
Imagine that our freeports could, say, scrap all taxes on savings and inheritance, or require balanced budgets, or introduce Singapore-style healthcare systems. Then we would get the growth that comes from innovation. New schemes would be piloted and trialled. What worked would spread. Jurisdictional competition would give us something we have never known before in this country – downward pressure on tax rates.
Sadly, though, whatever interest politicians show in localism when they are in opposition tends to evaporate once they assume office. Indeed, it is surprising – and creditable – that David Cameron went as far as he did.
Still, there are real dangers in letting things lie. The epidemic and the lockdowns have placed powers in the hands of the central administration that would have been unthinkable two years’ ago. Closed committees decide whether we can leave the country, enjoy our property or meet our friends. State budgets have grown commensurately. And governments are never in a hurry to return the powers that they had assumed on a supposedly emergency basis.
We left the EU precisely to take back control. Having repatriated power, it would be unforgivable to leave it in the hands of Whitehall functionaries. Instead, we should give local communities the tools to raise themselves. Otherwise, four or five years from now, we might find our levelling up rhetoric thrown back at us in anger.