The levelling up fund is a £4.8bn pot that was first announced in 2020 and presumed to address inequalities between and within regions of the UK. The second round of funding allocation was published this week, but rather than announcing it triumphantly in the House of Commons, it was slipped out as a written statement. The government must have known this was going to go down like a cup of cold sick.
Pork barrel politics
According to the Yorkshire Post, two thirds of this round of money given to areas in England has gone to Conservative seats – £1.6bn has been given to English local authorities, of which £1.1bn has been given to areas with a Conservative MP, or a majority of Tory MPs.
Indeed, as if to prove a point that pork barrel politics is alive and well, the Guardian reported that Catterick Garrison, the army town in the prime minister’s Richmond constituency in North Yorkshire, will receive £19mn to regenerate its town centre. That is a sixth of the TOTAL funding to the whole of Yorkshire.
As if to add insult to injury, the South East region is getting nearly double that at £210mn. There is a regional breakdown of funding here.
The opposite of levelling up
Even the government realises that this is not levelling up. Earlier this week it was reported that marginal constituencies had been advised by party staff to use phrases such as ‘stepping up’, ‘gauging up’, or ‘enhancing communities’ instead. As Abraham Lincoln once said: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”
It was former prime minister Boris Johnsons that gave us this overhyped and little understood phrase ‘levelling up’ and like so much that came from Johnson it was a slogan not a policy. Levelling up was always going to go belly up.
Last year Johnson was trumpeting the thousands of skilled jobs that would be created with a planned gigafactory for electric vehicle batteries in a deprived part of Northumberland. Yesterday the factory – Britishvolt – collapsed, with the Independent citing former Tory leader William Hague blaming Brexit for its demise. This is a huge blow for the North East and Johnson’s levelling up mission in general.
Musing on this and the inequalities that face the country, crossbench peer Lord Stevens of Birmingham said on Tuesday: “There seems to have been a voltage drop between the 240-volt diagnostic clarity of last year’s levelling up White Paper and the flickering 12-volt legislative battery before us today.”
Of course, this is all tinkering around the edges. This sort of approach to levelling up is never going to work whilst you have a government committed to lowering taxes and hammering local authorities and public sector workers.
Impact of cuts in Barnsley, South Yorkshire
Barnsley Council leader Sir Steve Houghton addresses this head on in a recent Northern Agenda podcast. He reminded listeners the extent to which this is just fiddling whilst Rome burns.
Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, over £14.5bn has been cut from local government services and over a million jobs shed. So councils are much smaller than they were ten years ago, but are asked to do the same things whilst bearing the brunt of national economic problems. Any fat that was there has been cut and a second round of austerity means frontline services will go.
For Barnsley it has meant losing 40% of its budget and about half the workforce. “If you look at Barnsley you are losing £120 million a year for ten years that’s £1.2 billion – a £20 million levelling up fund does not scratch the surface of what’s been lost. If you look at it in numbers there is no comparison”, says Houghton.
“In post-industrial towns like Barnsley we have been levelling up for last 20 years since we lost all the jobs in our staple industries. Levelling up is not a quick fix, it needs a 20-year strategy where we have decent public services to underpin those communities – then we start to grow the economy, give people skills, and have the right transport infrastructure.”Steve Houghton
Oh the irony. It was, after all, the Tories, who came in and decimated South Yorkshire’s industries in the 80s and 90s, upending the economic base and damaging the social fabric of our communities. Houghton has sat through it all trying to navigate Barnsley through the worst of times. This is no Tale of Two Cities, because the best of times seem to have escaped Barnsley in recent decades; but this tale is certainly Dickensian.
We demand better
Interviewed after this latest round of funding was announced, Lisa Nandy said: “It is time to end this Hunger Games-style contest where communities are pitted against one another and Whitehall ministers pick winners and losers.”
It’s not just the lack of long-term planning, the lack of money, the lack of any thinking … it’s the process. It is, as Paul Waugh from INews says, reducing “people’s life chances to the equivalent of bidding to host the Olympics or the World Cup” and undermines the whole principle of devolution. We don’t want to go to London with our begging bowls, we don’t want to compete with neighboring authorities, we want sustained funding over time.
More importantly, we want something better for our children and our grandchildren. We want our communities to be self-reliant, to have jobs that are sustainable and an economy that works for all. And it’s in the best interest of the whole country for places like Barnsley and the North to be performing better.
It will take a decade to shift that balance between the North and the South East, supported by a proper industrial strategy and by a government that pays attention to local communities and understands how different economies work. The Conservatives have no idea, and levelling up needs exposing for the sham it is. They have wasted over a decade, destroyed livelihoods, and we are all the poorer for it, especially in places like Barnsley.