Levelling up? That’s a job for Labour

In his first column of a new, monthly, series for Progressive Britain Paul Richards takes on Michael Gove…

The Labour Government elected in 1997 set the ambitious goal that within 10 to 20 years no-one should be ‘seriously disadvantaged by where they live’. After nearly two decades of Tory indifference, malevolence or ‘managed decline’, there was a deliberate effort to correct stark market failure, compensate for years of underinvestment, and take an interest in people in deindustrialised regions, forgotten towns, faded seaside resorts, and bleak estates.

From this simple but brilliant aspiration flowed policy after policy, and crucially the structures, institutions, and experiments to deliver it. Sure Starts. The New Deal for Communities. The Decent Homes programme. Housing Market Renewal. Excellence in Cities. The Neighbourhood Renewal Unit. Neighbourhood Wardens. Hazel Blears used to joke that a constituency such as hers in Salford had more pilots than the RAF.

And it worked. Evaluation of the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal showed residents thought their neighbourhoods were cleaner, safer, and more neighbourly. Sure Starts areas reported reductions in burglary, car crime, school exclusion, alongside the obvious direct benefits for parents and kids. Between 2000 and 2010, despite the global financial crash, the gap in worklessness between deprived neighbours and the rest in England was reduced. The target of reducing extra deaths in poorer neighbourhoods from heart disease and stroke by 40% was hit. The great cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Leeds and the rest – boomed after years of bust.

New Deal for Communities (NDCs) saved between three and five times the original investment. The Neighbourhood Renewal Fund cost £312m but saved £1.6bn by getting people into work. There were some interesting experiments in democracy too, with boards elected by local people on turnouts higher than the local council elections. At the time, I met with 20 or so of the New Deal for Communities boards from Southampton to Middlesbrough, and there was an insurrectionary, anarcho-syndicalist air about them. It felt like communities were being given the tools to fashion their own destiny after years of being kicked in the crotch.

These things are now fading from memory and entering the A level textbooks, but the lessons must not be lost. The Blair Government’s strategy was driven by social justice, but anchored in empirical evidence. Within weeks of all that flag waving in Downing Street, the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) was created and put to work. It used indices of multiple deprivation, to target precisely the places where intervention would be most effective. It roved across government looking at every opportunity. No lever was left unpulled. And crucially it was about investing in people, not buildings.

With a majority of 179 and personal satisfaction ratings in the stratosphere, Tony Blair could not be accused of being driven by narrow electoral calculus, cosmetic political posturing, or reheated speeches. Which brings me to Mr Gove and his levelling up white paper. Lisa Nandy and her colleagues on Labour’s front bench have dissected and destroyed Gove’s white paper. But notwithstanding the righteous fury of Nandy, Haigh, Reeves, or Streeting, the person with the most reason to be furious with Michael Gove’s white paper is Michael Gove. He has been stitched up a like a kipper, denied the money to make any difference. Instead of a footnote in the annuls (‘The Gove Plan’!) he has been afforded only the opportunity to blow more smoke into the smokescreen.

His ‘twelve missions’ are mostly impossible. Better connectivity? You’ve scrapped the promised railway in the north, and cut the busses. Crime down by 2030? You cut 20,000 police. 5G coverage by 2030? Your own manifesto promised it by 2025. By 2030, pay, employment and productivity will have risen in every area of the UK? But Brexit is costing us 2.25% in our GDP, or £40 billion so far. And never forget, the very first Tory budget in 2010, noisily supported by their Liberal Democrat stooges, abolished the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). The RDAs had been directing much-needed cash to the right places until Francis Maude took his baseball bat to them.

The smell of pork barrel hangs heavy over the DLUHC. This Government has already been called out for using the Towns Fund to reward places represented by Conservative MPs (Loughborough, Worcester, Cheadle) and ignore Labour ones (Kirkby, Bilston). The suspicion now is that Gove’s white paper is not about levelling up communities but shoring up majorities, or worse merely covering up Boris’s lawbreaking.

Naming a government department after it, sticking it in the title of a white paper, and giving yourself a special name badge with it on, does not make it happen. Levelling up needs political will, a strategy driven from No.10, and multiple ways to tackle multiple problems, from teen pregnancy to better bus routes. Asking a Tory to deliver social justice is like asking a parrot to deliver a talk on particle physics. There may be some flapping and squawking, but it’s not happening. As usual, it will be up to those pesky centrists to clear up the Tories’ mess.

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