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If Boris Johnson is serious about ‘levelling up’, he needs to define what it means

"Levelling up" has been a useful slogan that can mean all things to all people

"Levelling up" has been a useful slogan that can mean all things to all people. But, says Gemma Tetlow, galvanising the power of the state to deliver meaningful change for people will require the prime minister to spell out his objectives

"Levelling up" was the big theme of the Queen’s Speech. With the threat of Covid-19 receding, the prime minister is keen to make progress on this big policy agenda, which formed a key part of the Conservatives’ 2019 pitch to voters – especially those in the so-called Red Wall.

But despite – or perhaps because of – the amount of airtime this phrase has received from ministers, it is very unclear what it means. While there are some political benefits to this vagueness – because it allows the government to convince swathes of the electorate that they will be the beneficiaries – it cannot be sustained if the prime minister wants to effectively mobilise the state behind this goal.

A wide range of objectives have been identified as part of "levelling up"

A trawl through ministerial speeches from the past couple of years suggests a huge range of different objectives have been identified as part of levelling up. The most oft cited is connectivity, through better transport and broadband infrastructure. But ministers also talk about the importance of improving skills, creating and accessing jobs, improving townscapes so people feel safe in – and proud of – where they live, equalising access to public services, and increasing local decision-making responsibilities. Making progress towards levelling up has even been described as one of the benefits of UK free trade agreements.

These different objectives may be complementary but there are not always clear links and some could act against achieving others. Gaps in regional economic performance in the UK are long-standing – it is not clear how the government thinks any of its potential policy levers can overhaul this situation where previous initiatives have failed. For example, improving the skills of people in some of Britain’s worse performing towns and enhancing transport links between those towns and neighbouring cities could create more opportunities for individuals and boost their economic outcomes – but it might do little good for the economic and social vibrancy of the town itself and might just exacerbate the ‘brain drain to the cities’, which Johnson has said he wants to end. [1]

Different bits of government will need to work together and resources will need to be prioritised

Any one of these objectives is likely to require action by several different government departments and coordination between central government, local government, mayoral authorities and the devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For example, boosting access to high quality jobs could well require action from the business department (who will take the lead on policies aimed at influencing firms’ behaviour), the department for work and pensions (who have closest contact with job seekers across the country), the department for education (responsible for education and training), local authorities and mayoral combined authorities (which finance and run adult skills programmes, as well as having close links to local businesses).

Prioritising and coordinating action across the different objectives and across areas of the country will require even closer collaboration. But without a clear idea of what the government wants to achieve, the different parts of government are unlikely to work effectively together or to prioritise resources appropriately.

Some of the policy areas that could fall within the scope of levelling up – further education, regional policy and industrial strategy – are areas that have been subject to an unusually large amount of policy churn in the past, with new initiatives and organisations frequently replacing existing, similar ones. The human and economic costs of that have been high, as previous Institute for Government research has highlighted. If Johnson’s levelling up agenda is to be more than just another round of upheaval and reinvention in these policy areas, he must be clearer about what he is trying to achieve and why existing policies and institutions have failed to do this.

There has been some progress but more is needed quickly

The recent appointment of Neil O’Brien as the prime minister’s advisor on levelling up suggests that Johnson is starting to focus on the details. O’Brien is known for his strength on policy detail and should bring clearer direction to the agenda. The government has also promised a white paper on levelling up later this year.

But more detail is needed quickly. Departments will soon start preparing in earnest their bids for the multi-year spending review expected this autumn. Without a clearer idea of what the prime minister is trying to achieve, departments will struggle to assess how their existing programmes contribute to this agenda, what new initiatives might be needed, how different programmes should be prioritised, and whether and how they need to work with other departments or arms of government to facilitate change. Without a clearer steer from Johnson, there is a risk that each minister will try to sell his or her pet projects as part of levelling up, even if they do not line up with the prime minister’s own priorities.

Providing a useful, clearer definition of levelling up will come with a cost – as it may fall short of what some voters have started to think the slogan means. But without a clearer vision the prime minister has no chance of effectively mobilising the state to deliver real change.

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