The Johnson government on Wednesday staked its future on a pledge to “shift wealth and power decisively to working people”, as ministers set out their signature domestic policy to “level up” the UK’s left-behind areas.
Unveiling a white paper, Michael Gove, levelling up secretary, said he had adequate funds to meet 12 goals to narrow regional inequalities across the country, despite no new government money being announced.
Labour strongly criticised Gove’s document containing the targets, saying it showed the government had run “out of ideas“.
Boris Johnson has struggled to turn his 2019 election slogan to “level up” the UK into meaningful reform after his government was consumed by efforts to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
But the levelling up white paper’s 12 policy “missions” should help so-called red wall constituencies in northern England and the Midlands that the Conservatives seized off Labour in 2019, as well as other areas.
The paper pledged to create nine new county mayors in England by 2030 to drive efforts for boosting economic growth, increase state-funded research and development outside the south-east, improve digital connectivity, reduce serious and violent crime, and boost life expectancy.
Gove told MPs: “While talent is spread equally across the UK, opportunity is not. Our economy has been like a jet propelled by only one engine. Now we need to fire up every resource we have. And the economic prize from levelling up is potentially enormous.”
He added the government’s levelling up agenda was not only about devolution and investment, saying: “Economic opportunity spread more equally across the country is at the heart of levelling up. But it’s also about community, it’s about repairing the social fabric of our broken heartlands.”
But Lisa Nandy, shadow levelling up secretary, responded to the white paper by asking: “Is this it?” She said the document, which has been delayed several times, represented “a government in freefall — out of ideas, out of energy “.
She accused the government of being responsible over the past 12 years for “turbocharging the decline of our communities, cutting off choices and chances for a generation of young people” via cuts to local services.
Lisa Nandy, shadow levelling up secretary, responded: ‘Is that it?’ © Parliamentlive.tv
The white paper was welcomed by Conservative MPs. Damian Green, former deputy prime minister and a moderate Tory, described it as a “one-nation document”. John Redwood, the rightwing former minister, praised its focus on individual aspiration.
Torsten Bell, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, praised how the government would report on progress against its levelling up goals because it would create pressure in Whitehall to reach them.
But he said it was unclear if the government architecture was in place to turn an agenda into action. “Levelling up is not being run out of the heart of government — the Treasury or Number 10 — which creates the risk that there isn’t ongoing political engagement necessary to ensure it is prioritised,” he added.
Carys Roberts, executive director of the IPPR, another think-tank, welcomed the government’s white paper but said a detailed plan and cash were needed to deliver it.
“Levelling up isn’t new,” she added. “Many governments have tried and failed before. The sums already committed fall far short of what has been ripped out of communities during a decade of austerity — and of what other countries have shown is needed to narrow their regional divides.”