When Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, stood at the despatch box just over a year ago and presented the government’s vision for a fairer, more prosperous, more united country, we had no doubt about the scale of the task before us.
For all the gains that had been made since 2010 in business growth, innovation and technology, at the end of the last decade the UK stood more socially and economically divided than East and West Germany at the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This acute disparity hasn’t just acted as an anchor on growth. It also means that, as global inflation and the effects of the war in Ukraine saw energy bills spiking, the rising cost of living has been more keenly felt by communities most in need of Levelling Up.
This underscores the urgency of the Levelling Up white paper’s principal ambition – to tackle these economic disparities head on and close the yawning regional gaps in wages, productivity, transport, research and development, health and crime.
Since the white paper was published in February 2022, we’ve gone much further and faster than many believed possible.
Britain is better connected, with gigabit-capable broadband covering 73 per cent of the UK. Almost 80 per cent of premises have access to 5G.
Our streets are safer with a sustained reduction in violent crime. And, through the rollout of Violence Reduction Units, a tough new Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan, and more than 100 different projects to tackle violence against women and girls, we’re cutting crime in hot-spot areas too. From June 2018 to September 2022, neighbourhood crime was reduced by 39 per cent in the worst-affected areas across England and Wales.
The government is also on track to halve the number of poor-quality homes by the end of the decade. Through our landmark Social Housing Regulation Bill and Fairer Private Rented Sector white paper, we are resetting the tenant/landlord relationship and driving up Housing standards.
We’re backing businesses to level up too. Eight new freeports in England are set to create roughly 80,000 well-paid jobs, with four more to follow across Wales and Scotland. The tax relief, local retention of business rates, and simplified customs these freeports bring are driving investment and growth in the places where they’re most needed.
Let’s take the East Midlands freeport, which went operational in March. This will make it much easier for big regional players such as Toyota, Rolls Royce and Airbus to expand their manufacturing bases in the UK so that more of their Midlands-made products can be exported to global markets.
Combined with investment in a new low-carbon energy hub at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station and the rapid expansion of the East Midlands Airport, this freeport alone is going to provide more than 29,000 high-skilled, high-wage jobs, and add more than £8bn to the regional economy. Through programmes like the government’s £4.8bn Levelling Up fund, we are changing the economic fortunes of communities that have historically been rich in talent but poor in opportunity.
Places like Morecambe, north-west England are benefiting from £50m in Levelling Up funding to create a world-class tourism destination, that will attract 740,000 new visitors every year. Eden Project North, which is being built in the area, is a win for the whole tourism economy of the north-west.
Meanwhile, Portsmouth is using Levelling Up funding to extend its international ferry terminal to host 250,000 extra passengers a year. The city is also creating the longest urban linear park in the country, with dedicated cycling and walking routes.
This is the kind of transformative change that epitomises Levelling Up – tangible improvements to infrastructure, transport and the local economy, which people can see taking place around them.
But this isn’t just about spreading capital investment more evenly. The long-term success of Levelling Up ultimately rests on the shoulders of local, accountable leaders – those who know their areas far better than any civil servant in Whitehall could.
That’s one of the reasons why the Levelling Up department has instigated the greatest transfer of power from SW1 to local leaders in living memory.
Six devolution deals have been agreed in the past year alone, conferring unprecedented powers on leaders in Norfolk, Suffolk, Yorkshire, the East Midlands and the north-east. More than 50 per cent of England will soon be covered by a devolution deal, and we’re on course to offer it to every area that wants one by 2030.
In recent weeks, we’ve fulfilled our promise to deliver new trailblazing devolution deals with the West Midlands and Greater Manchester. These deals hand strong, effective metro mayors like Andy Street and Andy Burnham the tools and funding they need to level up in skills, transport and regeneration, and to push the boundaries of what local government can achieve in driving sustainable growth.
This is the new frontier of our Levelling Up agenda – moving away from short-term pots of central government funding towards long-term settlements for all mayoral areas, with the space and levers to effect real change.
Our ambition to level up means transforming the nature of government itself and the way we support our people and places. And, like any programme of genuine reform, this kind of change takes time.
We’re not naive about the hurdles still to come in completing our Levelling Up missions by 2030. But to have come this far after just one year is testament to what we can achieve when central government, local government and business pull together.
When historians look back, I’m confident they will judge the publication of our Levelling Up white paper as a watershed moment: when we began to bridge the divides that were holding the UK back and gave its people the opportunity to go as far in life as their talent and ambition could take them.
This opinion piece was first published in our Regional Development print edition, on 5 May 2023. Read it in full here.