Tories’ flagship ‘levelling up’ has ‘stalled’ under Sunak, says IfG report

The focus on closing gaping regional inequalities has lost momentum.

North South divide

The Conservatives’ promise to iron out regional inequalities and ‘level up’ the country has lost its way. This is according to the Institute for Government (IfG), an independent think-tank that works to make government more effective, which has issued a damning report of the government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ agenda.

The report, published on September 14, said that under the leadership of Rishi Sunak, the government has failed to prioritise the policy, meaning that the focus on levelling up has lost momentum.

Levelling up was a flagship policy of Boris Johnson, who pledged to revive large parts of Britain that had been left behind economically and socially. The policy was first articulated in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto and was a key pitch to voters outside London in the general election.

In February 2022, the then levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, published a white paper, which identified 12 ‘missions’ focused on closing gaping regional imbalances.

While ‘levelling up’ aims were not met under Johnson, with analysis by Bloomberg in June 2022 – more than two years after the policy was first articulated – showing that deprived communities were more likely to be falling further behind, the IfS warns that both Sunak and his predecessor Liz Truss had ‘deprioritised’ levelling up, and the agenda has been ‘stalled.’

The government described the IfG’s findings as ‘untrue,’ stating it is ‘absolutely committed to this long-term programme of reform.’

The think-tank is also calling on Labour to define its position on reducing regional inequalities ‘much more clearly,’ noting how the party’s ‘opportunities for all’ appears to mirror the Tories’ ‘levelling up’ pledges.

Labour says if the party won the next election, it would aim to ‘boost productivity growth in every region and nation by the end of the parliament and we will measure our success against living standards and good jobs in every party of the country.’

In a speech at the TUC Congress this week, the deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner branded the Conversative version of levelling up the country a ‘sham and a scam.’

Talking to trade unionists in Liverpool, Rayner said the policies of the last Labour government – including support for parents and the minimum wage – “transformed my life and my prospects because it was done right.”

“But the foundations I relied upon to improve my life and my community has instead been levelled down by the Tories.

“With house building cratering and wages plummeting across the whole country, the government’s agenda is a sham – and a scam.

“An empty slogan won’t pay decent wages, false promises won’t build secure homes, and a sound bite won’t empower local people and local communities to take control of their futures,” she added.

The IfG’s report on the Tories’ levelling up plans was published in the same week that revelations emerged that Rishi Sunak is considering making further cuts to HS2 north of Birmingham. The high-speed railway, which is currently under construction, has been beset by rising costs and delays. It has already had its leg to Leeds cut.

Northern leaders reacted with fury to the news that HS2 will face further cuts. The Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham blasted the government, saying ‘levelling up, my a***.’

“It’s coming up 10 years since [George] Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ speech and the Tories are set to scrap the last of his rail pledges,” he said.

“The result? The southern half of England gets a modern rail system and the North left with Victorian infrastructure. Levelling up? My a**e.”

“Government is guilty of gross mismanagement of HS2 and of making the North pay for their failure. Once again, passengers here are seen as second-class citizens,” Burnham added.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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