Levelling up isn’t about north or south, or city or town. It’s about restoring local pride | Neil O'Brien

The Guardian
The Guardian
Workers at the Nissan plant in Sunderland, where a new electric vehicle hub will eventually open. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Boris Johnson put levelling up at the heart of his conference speech today. But what is it? The objectives of levelling up are clear. To empower local leaders and communities. To grow the private sector and raise living standards – particularly where they are lower. To spread opportunity and improve public services, particularly where they are lacking. And to restore local pride, whether that is about the way your town centre feels, keeping the streets safe or backing community life.

In his speech, the prime minister also set out what levelling up isn’t . It’s not about cutting down the tall poppies. Not about north v south, or city v town. There are poor places even in affluent regions like the south-east and London.

And as the prime minister argued, there’s a win-win here: if you have a country that has overheating house prices and overcrowded infrastructure in some places, while other places are crying out for jobs and investment in regeneration, the opportunity is obvious. That’s one reason, economists like Philip McCann find, why more balanced economies are stronger overall.

In the coming weeks, the levelling up white paper and spending review will set out our next steps to achieve our four goals – and how we’ll measure progress. Everyone recognises that there are some things we can and must make progress on quickly, but that some of the other changes we want to see will take longer. In some cases, we are trying to fix problems that have built up over decades, under governments of all colours.

Stronger local leadership is part of the answer. It’s partly about having local champions. Years ago I was asked by a well-meaning Whitehall official whether Teesside and Merseyside were the same thing. Today no official would ask the same thing: the Teesside mayor, Ben Houchen, and the West Midlands mayor, Andy Street, are the hot tickets at the Tory conference, and big figures in our national conversation.

But it’s about joining up as well as leadership, and having the single point of contact who can bring together everything inward investors want: the land, the skills, the transport. Andy Street is revolutionising adult skills spending (sexy subject, I know) by bringing local colleges together round one table in a way Whitehall simply can’t, coordinating what they’ll offer and making sure taxpayers’ money gets young unemployed people real jobs, not just courses.

Growing living standards in poorer places is absolutely central. We’re only having this conversation because large parts of the country have suffered from weak economies for decades. There’s so much we need to do to fix that. Getting more inward investment into poorer places, building on the creation of the DIT and the new Office for Investment. Margaret Thatcher pulled out all the financial stops to get Nissan to Sunderland, knowing it would be transformative, and this year we’ve helped ensure their new mega-investment in green vehicles there too. And across the country we have the “super deduction” – a whopping investment tax break helping tackle Britain’s long history of underinvestment and low productivity.

How do we ensure our enormous increase in government investment in R&D drives the growth of well-paid, hi-tech jobs right across the country? How do we build on the creation of the British Business Bank and infrastructure bank (with its HQ in Leeds) to build up across the UK the strong ecosystems of private investors which give firms in Silicon Valley such an advantage?

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Spreading opportunity is key to any Conservative vision of levelling up. It is no accident that unemployment has turned out lower than feared at the start of the pandemic. Instead, it is the result of a willingness to spend billions: first on furlough, supporting 11m jobs, and then on schemes like Kickstart and Restart as we recover, getting young people a start in life. I’ve met young people who Kickstart has got into jobs. I’m proud of that, and also how we’re building a proper technical education for the 50% of young people who don’t go to uni. Like the new T-levels, a real equivalent to A-levels with more funding than old FE qualifications and lots more time in the workplace. Like the measures we are taking to make A-level equivalent qualifications free to adults who don’t have them.

And better connections to opportunity. Not just billions to revolutionise connections between cities with HS2 and east-west connections across the north and Midlands. But the increased and devolved transport settlements we’re giving our large cities. For many people, particularly the lower paid, the ladder to opportunity isn’t a degree or starting their own business, but simply the provision of a decent bus that brings a job (or a better job) within reach.

I don’t know of anywhere without local pride or something unique to offer. But in some places that pride is a bit battered. Places where economic decline has strained the social fabric: the clubs, the charities, community life. Town centres that are struggling to adapt to online shopping. Through the high streets fund, towns fund and levelling up fund, we’re backing regeneration. But the task of repurposing town centres for the internet age is a monumental one, and some local governments will want help from central government as they adapt to a fundamental, historic shift.

Across Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland we all face the same challenges, so we have to work together and learn from one another. After a bruising few years in our politics, the prime minister showed today that levelling up is a uniting mission for the whole country.

  • Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough and parliamentary undersecretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

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