5.Since the Prime Minister identified the need for Britain to ‘level up’ in his speech in Downing Street, there has been widespread discussion of what the concept actually means.
6.In the Conservative Party Manifesto in 2019, the Prime Minister stated:
We have mapped out a fantastic programme for the years ahead: to unite and level up, spreading opportunity across the whole United Kingdom.
The Manifesto set out various levelling up ambitions, such as infrastructure spending on roads and rail to “connect this country, so that everyone can get a fair share of its future prosperity.” It highlighted Leeds as “the largest city in Western Europe without a light rail or metro system. And European cities are often more productive than our own in large part because they have better infrastructure.” The Manifesto also focused on the need to develop skills to “improve Britain’s productivity” and to “enable people to fulfil their potential” as well as Science and Research to give people “opportunity and hope”. The Manifesto said that as a result of “getting Brexit done” it would be able “to give new support to people in rural and coastal communities, and for our farming and fishing industries”. The Government also committed to creating ten freeports.
7.Levelling up was subsequently a major theme of the May 2021 Queen’s Speech, when the Government confirmed its intention to publish a Levelling Up White Paper, which will also include its long-awaited plans for devolution in England.
8.However, despite this focus on levelling up as a central theme in Government discourse, there remains a distinct lack of clarity as to what the Government actually means by levelling up, and subsequently, how the success or otherwise of the Government’s policy aim of levelling up can be assessed and evaluated. In this chapter, we seek to explore what the Government means by the term levelling up, why it is seen as important by the Government, and how the Government aims to deliver its flagship policy.
9.While the Prime Minister has described levelling up as a UK wide policy, many of the sources of funding and policy initiatives are England only, as much of the relevant policy area is devolved. It appears that the Government has opted for two different funding streams on UK wide and devolved competencies. It is not clear how funding for levelling up will be derived for the devolved nations. There has been no agreement with the devolved administrations how funding will be allocated in line with the devolution settlements. As we note in chapter 4, the promised Levelling Up White Paper is set to include proposals for devolution within England. Our report therefore focuses primarily on levelling up as it applies in England. Nonetheless, this lack of clarity around the territorial extent of the levelling up agenda, and the apparent absence of any meaningful strategic engagement with the devolved administrations around the levelling up agenda, amplifies the lack of clarity and focus around this major policy.
10.In the 2021 Queen’s Speech, the Government provided some details both in terms of financial commitments and policy details, which expanded on the Manifesto pledges (see Box 1 below).
Box 1: Levelling up commitments in the Queens Speech 2021
Source: Source: Queen’s Speech Background Briefing Notes
11.However, to date, the Government has provided no overall strategy for the agenda or a vision for what a levelled up UK might look like in the future. Gemma Tatlow, Chief Economist at the Institute for Government (IFG), said in a comment piece of 11 May If Boris Johnson is serious about levelling up, he needs to define what it means:
it is very unclear what it [levelling up] 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.
Giles Wilkes, former industrial and economic special adviser to former Prime Minister Rt Hon Theresa May MP, noted that the Government’s use of the phrase levelling up was so widespread that it had become nothing more than a generic term for “make things better”. Rafael Behr of the Guardian referred to levelling up as a “rhetorical zeppelin”, which was “floating on the political horizon, carrying no cargo of policy”.
12.This problem of a lack of understanding of the meaning of levelling up seems to extend beyond journalists and political commentators to the general public. A poll by YouGov found that only 33% of people knew what it meant; 24% had heard it but felt unsure of what it meant; 12% had heard of it but had “no idea” what it meant, and 31% had never heard of it at all. Potentially more concerning for the Government was research by Public First that found through its focus groups that the term levelling up was confusing to participants and when the meaning was explained to them, [they found it] “mildly irritating”. It found that people did not feel ‘levelled down’ but rather ignored. Equally, participants described the idea that they would suddenly become like London and the South East in four years as “bizarre” with the conclusion of the study being “it’s not what they want, and they don’t think it’s credible”.
13.We asked Paul Scully MP, Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, to clarify what the Government meant by levelling up. He said:
It is about making sure we can improve the everyday life and life chances for people in underperforming places around the country.
It is to look at the long term structural issues that are there, whether it is connectivity, inequalities or productivity, to make sure we can tackle all of these areas, and to raise opportunities around the country that are not able to be realised in certain areas.
14.The Prime Minister, from the first day of his premiership, identified levelling up as a major focus of Government policy. It was featured in the Conservative Party Manifesto in 2019 and was a central theme of the programme for government, set out in the Queen’s Speech in May 2021. While it is frequently referred to by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet as the central purpose and mission of this Government, it has yet to be defined beyond its aim of ‘improving everyday life and life chances’.
15.Given the Government’s own focus on its levelling up agenda, the lack of clarity around its meaning and how it translates into specific policy initiatives and strategies is stark. As it currently stands, levelling up risks becoming an everything and nothing policy, not owned by any particular Minister or Department, and without any means in place of evaluating or assessing its impact or efficacy as policy in ‘improving everyday life and life chances’.
11 See for example: “” CSW, 20 February 2020 “” BBC Website, 11 May 2021
12 Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto, “” 2019, introduction pg 2
13 Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto, “” 2019, introduction
14 Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto, “” 2019, introduction
15 10 Downing Street: , 11 May 2021
17 See for example: “” CSW, 20 February 2020; “” BBC Website, 11 May 2021; IFG, , 11 May 2021
18 10 Downing Street: , 11 May 2021
19 IFG, , 11 May 2021
20 Giles Wilkes, ,11 May 2021
21 “” The Guardian, 16 June 2021
22 YouGov: 15–16 December 2020
23 Rachel Wolf, , 10 May 2021