Andy Street, the Conservative metro mayor of the West Midlands, has criticised the government for its messaging on levelling up, saying that focusing on the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund, the first funding round of which was in 2021, amounted to a “comms cock-up”.
The fund allocated money to different councils for projects to improve everyday life across the UK. Speaking at the New Statesman’s Regional Development Conference in Birmingham, Street said that single short-term funds such as this were “not how you deliver levelling up” and that the “whole apparatus of government spend” needed to be considered. The best example of more long-term solutions within the government’s levelling up white paper, published in February 2022, he said, was the budget set aside for research and development (R&D).
The commitments included increasing public R&D investment to £20bn by 2024-25, and an aim for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to invest at least 55 per cent of its total domestic R&D funding outside the south-east of England by 2024-25. “How that is spent in the long-term will determine the economic success of each region,” said Street.
Street has recently agreed a “trailblazer” devolution deal between the West Midlands and central government. Initially, the deal will give his region investment of £1.5bn, including a regeneration package worth up to £160m, more local control over spending and sectors such as transport, skills and culture, and the retention of business rates. Dehenna Davison, a minister in the Department for Levelling Up, has described it as the “greatest transfer of power in living memory” from Whitehall to the regions. Another “trailblazer” deal has been struck with Greater Manchester metro mayor, Andy Burnham.
[See also: How would Labour do levelling up?]
Street has praised the deal, recently writing for the New Statesman that it marked the “beginning of the end of begging bowl” culture in Westminster. Speaking at the conference, he said that the deal would help to push the West Midlands further on its “journey” towards rebalancing inequalities in the region compared with London and the south-east, adding that the West Midlands has already “[improved] rapidly” across “long-term determinants” such as transport, connectivity, skills and housing. He said that “trailblazer” was a “deliberate choice of word”, and that the West Midlands and Greater Manchester would “lead the way” on behalf of the whole country.
However, he expressed concerns about how separate local authority funding would sit within the devolution deal. “I’m least confident about [the fact that] I don’t have any understanding of where local authority funding sits within this [negotiation] at all,” he said. “The interplay of how local authorities will play their role, that bit is very unclear at the moment.”
On the future of levelling up under a potential Labour government, he said: “I do think [levelling up] will survive [the election]. It’s almost impossible for an incoming Labour government to turn its back on the commitments to the north.”
While the Conservative mayor said that a Labour government would not be his preferred outcome of the next election, he said that he had shown willingness to work across party lines. The mayor added that he would challenge the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, to flesh out what he described as vague pledges on the levelling up agenda from the opposition.