Is it Levelling Up, Stepping Up, Gauging Up… or Times Up?
By Tom Haynes
As the government today confirmed the 111 successful bids announced as part of the second round of the flagship “Levelling-up Fund”, Labour critics have been quick to jump on this “Hunger Games–style contest”.
Speaking with the media this morning, Michael Gove had been clear that money has been allocated as a result of "objective criteria”, with other senior ministers, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, touring the country to highlight all the benefits of this £2.1 billion fund. Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State, Lisa Nandy, has accused the government of favouring Conservative marginal seats, with money being focussed on London and the South.
The awarding of funds to the Prime Minister’s constituency of Richmond in Yorkshire has taken the most scrutiny from the press, as well as MPs during an Urgent Question in the House of Commons this morning. With only 1.3% of constituents claiming unemployment benefit, this is well below both the national and regional average and an easy target for critics of the scheme. However, while constituencies such as these serve as useful scapegoats for the opposition, it misrepresents the purpose of the policy. The scheme in the Prime Minister’s constituency involves a redevelopment of the Catterick Garrison, a plan which will revive the town centre, high streets, and rebuild community spaces for service families. The underlying purpose of the policy has never been to be the solution to all of an area’s problems, but instead help lay the groundwork to promote left behind pockets of the country, facilitate economic growth, and help to make these towns attractive for further private investment.
From almost the outset of the levelling up concept, Conservative MPs, particularly in their traditional heartland seats, have been concerned that it would result in areas of the “red wall” being favoured at the expense of their constituencies. This is particularly the case for MPs with pockets of deprivation within their constituencies, in what are otherwise wealthy parts of the country.
This feeling from Conservative backbenchers, combined with the fact that we are now less than two years out from a General Election, it comes as little surprise that we are going to see a decent chunk of bids sponsored by Conservative MPs coming up trumps in this round of the fund. However, this again feels like an overly simplified analysis of the funds impact. This is second of three funding rounds, and so when we look at the scheme as a whole, it is worth stressing that London and the South East won the lowest amount per capita across the whole country. Furthermore, Wales was the highest earning region per capita, a nation which has only 13 Conservative MPs and is run by a Labour devolved government.
45% of investment across both funding rounds has been given to areas held by opposition parties, including the constituencies represented by Sir Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy. Given that opposition parties make up around 45% of the House of Commons, it feels very difficult to claim that this is a programme that disproportionately benefits Conservative MPs.
As with most challenges facing this government, the real issue of the day is timing. The Conservatives are still around 20 points behind Labour in the polls with less than two years before the next election. As the Prime Minister works to deliver on the economy and give confidence to the public, headline policies such as Levelling-up are going to be key to the public’s measure of success. Second to this will be the need to simultaneously appeal to the first time Conservative voters from 2019 from traditional Labour seats, while also giving confidence to traditional Conservative voters, many of whom feel let down and are shifting towards parties like the Lib Dems and Greens.
The time required for legislative reform has either run out or is quickly escaping the government, and so Levelling Up, a fund which can physically transform people’s communities, is perhaps the sharpest tool the government has left at its disposal. The difficulty will be the ability they now have to deploy these schemes at pace to make the tangible impact required to win the support of voters.
With the timelines surrounding the final funding round still to be confirmed, we are yet to see how the government will deploy this further as an election tool. Either way, there remain a lot of questions as to whether the scheme can be a success and promote economic growth as it is intended or is simply a very expensive election gimmick.