Localis chief executive Jonathan Werran looks underneath the bonnet of the language of ‘levelling up’ to ask what should be measured and how in rebalancing the economy.
The looming 11 March Budget, the subsequent full Spending Review and eagerly awaited English Devolution White Paper will set the pace and direction for rebalancing our political economy over the next decade.
The watchword is ‘levelling up’. However, behind the ubiquity of this catch-all term, what in reality does this oft-repeated phrase mean for communities and localities at all points of the compass – from the South West to the North East? How will it affect life-chances from Truro to the Tees Valley or improve access to skills, jobs, transport and digital infrastructure from Maidstone to Manchester?
Political catchphrases when taken up assume a life and proportion all of their own. They can backfire with an almost theatrical, comical effect. Playwright John Osborne took apart Harold Wilson’s ‘forged in the white heat of the technological revolution’ rhetoric in his play ‘Inadmissible Evidence’. As further evidence we could present the aftermath of his surprise 1992 election win, when nice Mr Major’s ‘back to basics’ campaign was mistakenly seen as a return to prim Victorian morality at the exact same time many among his his ministerial and backbench colleagues were, so it seemed, intent on serving up to the red tops a reheated Whitehall sex comedy farce.
There again, the high-minded serious phrases of more recent times didn’t have longevity. Are we still fixated by the Cameron need to ‘compete in the global race’ while sticking to the ‘long-term economic plan’? Theresa May’s strong prime ministerial opening salvo to fix ‘burning injustices’ sent commentators and analysts in a fixated spin about the needs of the JAMs (shorthand for ‘just about managing’ if you’d already forgotten or thought the MC5 had taken care of the situation).
So you should always be wary of what gets plucked from the lexicon of policy and translated to politics. And in all honesty, it could have been marginally worse. Last summer there was a binary choice between ‘turbocharging’ and ‘levelling-up’.
The prospect of having to constantly fall back on the language and imagery of ‘Hot Wheels’ petrol-heads and speed-kings in seeking to explain or understand regional economic policy would have palled instantly even were it not inimical to combating climate change.
So we are left with ‘to level up’ as a new verb to play with and conjugate. The connotations are immediate and aspirational – let’s give every place the chance to improve so as to be as good as the best.
The phrase also captures the sentiment of achievement in console and roleplay gaming – of moving on up a stage. This, to my mind rooted in the ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ generation only betokens fear of what end of level boss awaits our Combined Authority Mayors. Or the real and present fear that many among our senior policymakers are hobbyist wielders of polyhedral dice and intent on wreaking revenge on a cruel world that just didn’t understand them. Avenging from a sense of outsider ‘weirdo and misfit’ injustice first nurtured within the confines of the school Wargames Society.
The sheer ubiquity of ‘levelling up’ as a phrase lends it to anything vaguely good or desirable in the policy space to the point that it becomes a linguistic comfort blanket. Last week Matt Hancock wanted to level up health and care investment and technology. Ditto criminal justice, education, the labour market in previous months.
In the context of the Johnson Supremacy, we must factor in the philosophy, the politics and policy behind levelling up and suggest how each part of the country can benefit from a shift to radical reformation of political economy. And to really ‘level up’ we must spark up a conversation around decentralisation that is focused on the inter-dependent goals of spreading prosperity by unlocking inherent place potential and at the same time easing socio-economic pressures on London and the South East.
Localis’s thinking will be guided, in part, by the concept of ‘borrowed size’. This is a network effect where larger areas and conglomerations use their position within an inter-related web to ‘borrow’ major urban economic functions from a metropolis like London. This in turn raises prosperity in the surrounding areas of each city in the network and serves as a pressure valve on crowding and affordability within the metropolis.
Our thinking will also be inspired by returning to the question of how we go about unlocking the full inherent place potential of England in all four corners. Looking beyond the shift in governance structures and agreed transfer of powers, there is a danger that levelling up becomes seen as an exercise in mere financial equalisation.
And as has already been noted, levelling up in terms of public spending per head – which is less in England than the devolved nations – would mean more moolah for the regions which don’t currently enjoy the above average expenditures seen in London, the North West and North East.
How the nation chooses to allocate public spending – not just on a per capita basis for public services but also on capital projects is a good yardstick, but perhaps not always a useful one.
If it is to have any worth, levelling up should mean a marked and discernible uplift in the life and environment of ordinary people. What wider spatial and individual indicators – such as employment, income, physical and mental health and wellbeing – are worthy of tracking in place terms and what local policies needed to improve outcomes in our communities? All said and done, we will need to keep things on the level.
Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis