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No substance again

July 16, 2021 5:11 PM

rsl4 (Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash)A few years ago you may recall that David Cameron launched his big society idea. The initiatives championed included a local buy-out of a rural pub, efforts to recruit volunteers to keep museums open, support to speed up broadband supply, and giving residents more power over council spending.

Billed as "the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street". It subsequently all died a limp death as the Conservatives imposed austerity and slashed funding and powers for local authorities in the years after its launch

Yesterday our Prime Minister gave what was billed an important speech outlining more about his big idea of levelling up.

Except he didn't!

The speech was typical Johnson, full of fancy phrases but devoid of content.

The Conservative MP Laura Farris told the BBC on Thursday that levelling up was an ambiguous phrase that "means whatever anyone wants it to mean", and a former cabinet minister said of the speech: "He seems to be throwing the kitchen sink at it, which suggests there isn't much of a coherent idea behind it."

Torsten Bell, the director of the Resolution Foundation, said: "The speech was light on new 'levelling up' policies, but much more of a problem is that the government already has a big levelling down policy - the £20 a week cut to universal credit. One in three households

Two years on from making the promise at the last general election Johnson admitted he only had a "skeleton" plan to turn his so-called levelling up agenda into reality . Apart from vague talk of County mayors and graffiti task forces his speech was devoid of anything new.

Lets be clear the UK has one of the most geographically unequal economies in Europe, the fault of huge differences in productivity caused by lack of skills, under-investment and changing technologies that have seen many manufacturing sectors decimated. A report commissioned by the Health Foundation to mark 10 years on from the landmark study Fair Society, Healthy Lives (The Marmot Review). concluded

  • people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health
  • improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women
  • the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas
  • place matters - living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less. see health Equity in England_The Marmot Review 10 Years On_executive summary_web.pdf
Creating a Towns fund which aims to give places like Ipswich and Lowestoft a few tens of millions to tart up their town centres hardly scratches the surface. Welcome as it is it only returns a small proportion of the cuts made to local government over the last 10 years. In the same breath the government allocates only 10% of the budget required to allow our kids to catch up on schooling lost during the pandemic.
As always our Prime Minister is simply after headlines. Changing the economic performance of our left behind communities will take a sustained long term plan of investment, skilling and productivity improvement. It is needed but yesterdays speech suggested the government are not serious when they talk of levelling up
As Ed Davey said yesterday "Far from levelling up, it's clear Boris Johnson is just making it up as he goes along. That was just a rambling speech that does nothing for the millions of people who work hard and play by the rules but are still let down by this Conservative government."