Central government is not set up to deliver this government’s promise – or Labour’s plans – to reduce regional inequality.
This report sets out how central government has undermined past attempts to reduce regional inequalities – and then sets out six tests this or future governments must meet to ensure that ‘levelling up’ – or Labour’s pledge to deliver “real life levelling up” – has the best chance of succeeding.
Repeated central government failures have thwarted efforts to reduce regional inequality, including frequent changes in ministers – since 1990 there have been 17 secretaries or ministers of state responsible for regional governance – policy direction and institutions, a lack of clarity on policy aims, and a failure to co-ordinate across departments and work well with devolved and local governments.
The report warns that these mistakes are being repeated. Although the Levelling Up White Paper recognised many of these challenges, and took some welcome steps like announcing 12 missions, the agenda has stalled because Rishi Sunak is failing its first test of needing to “ruthlessly prioritise” levelling up and demonstrate “sustained leadership”.
The IfG report also says that new shadow levelling up secretary Angela Rayner needs to do more to define Labour’s “opportunity for all” vision or risk it being an “empty slogan” – which is how Labour has dismissed the government’s “levelling up” plan – and develop a set of cross-government structures to reduce regional inequalities.
There is political consensus behind tackling regional inequalities and both parties have rightly highlighted the need for further devolution to drive change, but central government has often failed to play its part. The report’s six tests measure whether lofty rhetoric is being converted into the practical steps and political commitment that might finally move the dial.