Ten things we learned about Levelling Up at Conservative Party Conference…

October 8, 2021

Here are 10 things we learned…

  1. The je ne sais quoi factor. In any other policy area, hearing a minister use this phrase would be a head-in-hands moment. But Neil O’Brien said that it does apply to the Prime Minister’s own thinking on Levelling Up. “Restoring local pride,” he said, is in part about the way your town centre looks and feels. It’s hard to measure success here but we recognise it when we see it. Michael Gove explained that we can also spot the opposite. He revealed one of his new political heroes: “Tiger” Patel, a Tory councillor in Blackburn whose wordless campaign video of a run-down local playground went viral online. The Conservatives should consider setting themselves a “Tiger Patel Test” before the next election: in every community being levelled up, can locals see something – even a rusted playground – that has been improved? As Gove pointed out, “this is not rocket science.”
  2. Crime destroys local pride. Linked to the je ne sais quoi factor, and no less important, is something that we’re likely to hear a lot more of in the run-up to the next general election, especially with Keir Starmer branding the Tories “the party of crime and disorder” in his own speech at Labour Conference. This is the idea that crime destroys local pride, so dealing with crime is key to making people feel better about where they live. As Gove argued, “If high streets after six o’clock are places where were women fear to go, that is a big problem.” The challenge is more community policing and, especially after recent failures by the Met, how to win greater trust in the police.
  3. “Building Beautiful” lives on. It was Policy Exchange that in 2018 – a year before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister – found, with polling and a major report co-authored by Sir Roger Scruton and Jack Airey (now the PM’s Special Adviser on Housing and more), that people of all social classes might be more open to new developments if they were built in designs and styles that are beautiful. With that in mind, note the PM’s lines on “the constant anxiety [suffered, he said, by the residents of Stoke Poges] that your immemorial view of chalk downland is going to be desecrated by ugly new homes” and his pledge that new houses should be built “not on green fields, not just jammed in the south east, but beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense”. This may be in part a retreat from a total planning revolution after the Lib Dem by-election victory in Chesham and Amersham, but…
  4. Ministers believe Levelling Up can take pressure of the South. There was – as I explored in a piece for The Spectator – a genuine belief from O’Brien (and Boris Johnson in his speech) that Levelling Up could take pressure of the South, especially in terms of housing. O’Brien argued: “If your housing policy is always about following where housing prices are high right now, rather than where it’s got scope to grow… you’re driving in the rear-view mirror and you can unwittingly create what economists would call the Matthew effect. ‘To those that have, more shall be given’.” The Government doesn’t plan vastly to increase supply in the South East, but reduce demand – by ensuring that more people “stay local and go far” in the Levelled Up North, returning to where they grew up after university or after the early part of their career. Some would counter that, for the time being, this will ensure ever more unaffordable property prices in the South East. But it shows the scale of ambition involved here.
  5. Levelling Up is about strengthening the Union. Another Policy Exchange report, Modernising the United Kingdom, published soon after Boris Johnson became PM, argued that the Government should prioritise specific projects aimed at strengthening the transport links between the four nations of the UK. Projects cited in our report included “Completing the upgrade of the A1, connecting Edinburgh to Newcastle and London” and “Enhancing the road capacity linking North Wales to Merseyside and Greater Manchester”. Boris Johnson’s speech echoed this, arguing that his Government “will restore those sinews of the Union that have been allowed to atrophy”, such as the “the A1 north of Berwick and on into Scotland” and “the north wales corridor”. Transport is devolved of course, but the interim Union Connectivity Review, formed on the basis of another Policy Exchange recommendation, suggests a way round this with the UK Government funding a new UK network (one that mirrors European funding for the EU Trans-European Network for Transport).
  6. It’s about creating more Ben Houchens. “If you want to see what levelling up looks like, come to Teesside,” Michael Gove told one reporter shortly before Tory conference kicked off. Ben Houchen, the Conservative Mayor of the Tees valley, re-elected earlier this year with 72.8% of the vote, is a lot to do with that. His successes, Gove pointed out, have included, “saying, right I’m buying the [Durham Tees Valley] airport…. I am absolutely serious about using the powers I have for economic recovery. You can now see four years on the shift in the economic fortunes and the sense of confidence there as it happens.”  As Houchen argued on the Policy Exchange panel, local leadership matters. “I represent Teesside, I wouldn’t know the first thing that was important to the people of Stoke or Cornwall, I wouldn’t even know what to the great people of Manchester is the most important thing. And that’s the beauty of levelling up. It’s also one of the difficulties that Government have really, truly defining it, because what levelling up means to Teesside is very different to what levelling up means to Manchester.”
  7. The private sector has not been forgotten. It’s unfair to dismiss Levelling Up as solely the state turning on the public spending taps, as the Conservatives move leftwards on economics. As O’Brien pointed out, the state has a role to play in attracting big inward investments from the private sector, with the Office for Investment behaving like a kind of “concierge service”. But he argued “that we could be much more aggressive about trying to bring in those inward investments that can really change local economies”, pointing to the transformational impact of Nissan’s arrival in Sunderland during the Thatcher era, which transformed not just the local economy but also the entire British car industry.
  8. It’s about fewer students studying pointless degrees. If you spend three years in seminar rooms discussing the “hermeneutics of Spider-man”, you are going to be less useful to an employer than someone who has had a “directly scientifically rigorous route into work” while being trained in the private sector, said Gove. The education aspect of Levelling Up must still be on creating “parity of esteem” between the academic and technical sides, O’Brien said, noting that adding “50% more hours in the workplace” to T-Levels was evidence of a start here. Encouragingly, Policy Exchange’s David Goodhart, chairing the O’Brien panel, observed that parents – polling shows – are already keener for their children to get good vocational skills than less deployable university degrees.
  9. It’s about improving public services. Both Houchen and the Prime Minister talked about the importance of good bus services. Responding to Andy Burnham’s plea for a £1 billion investment in Manchester transport, in order to give it a London-style transport system, he noted: “We don’t even have buses that reach our rural areas. We don’t have a train that turns up to Middlesbrough once every half an hour to get to the East Coast Mainline to then get us from Darlington to anywhere else in the country… there are parts of the country that we need to get to the starting line.” This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges for ministers: what are the metrics of success on Levelling Up? Are they possibly setting themselves an era-defining challenge that they can only hope to begin before the next election? Houchen offered advice here: “We don’t need to have completed that journey. What we need to have done is started that journey. We need to be able to say at the next election, you know, there is a factory that’s going to employ 2000 people, it is half built, there are construction jobs being created, your train station is being upgraded, your bus services are improving, they need to get better, but you can see your bus services and your rail services are getting better.”
  10. And… it obviously goes far beyond Gove and O’Brien’s new department. This is perhaps the only other potential hitch in the reconfigured, reshuffled Government, much discussed by attendees at the Conference. Levelling Up isn’t simply a slogan. Nor, in reality, is it a Government policy. The minestrone soup set out above is a whole way of governing – and thinking about governing, and getting the electorate to think about the Government. If education policy is part of Levelling Up, if transport policy is part of Levelling Up, if it’s about handing over more power to local leaders, Gove and O’Brien not only have their work cut in defining Levelling Up, but also showing the voters that it’s for real.


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