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Today marks one year since the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper. 

In some areas, solid progress has been made. Devolution deals have been struck with Cornwall, Norfolk, Suffolk, the East Midlands and the North East, meaning over 50% of England’s population is now covered by enhanced powers. The ‘trailblazer’ deals being negotiated with the West Midlands and Greater Manchester for significantly greater powers look likely to include fiscal devolution – an essential step to moving away from what Mayor Andy Street called the “begging bowl culture” of pleading with Whitehall for more funds from small pots of money.

In other areas priorities have shifted – prompted by volatile politics. The original White Paper envisaged a series of twenty regeneration zones, dubbed “Boris Boroughs” – a name which had a limited shelf life. The Truss government took place-based development in a new direction with Investment Zones, emphasising tax breaks and deregulation. Then in a recent speech Michael Gove re-emphasised the Heseltinian model of an “active not absent” government, citing Thatcher’s efforts in London’s docklands as inspiration. The clock is ticking for the sites for these revamped investment zones/clusters/boroughs to be announced.

The UK’s economic imbalance has not shifted in 365 days. That is hardly surprising. What should alarm the Government is that the economic turbulence of the past year has hardened regional divides, with the cost of living crisis biting particularly hard in the Midlands and the North. When the Chancellor comes to the dispatch box on March 15th for his Budget, the place-based lens set out in the White Paper could not be more crucial – issues like economic inactivity manifest very differently between towns, cities, and regions. The Treasury produces impact assessments for each part of the country when they conduct a fiscal event. A bold Government dedicated to levelling up would publish them. 

The White Paper balanced a focus on economic regeneration with restoring pride in place. Onward’s work over the past year in Oldham, South Tyneside, Walsall, and other towns brought home the centrality of this softer part of levelling up. Residents and local leaders told us that without bringing hope and confidence to areas that had been overlooked, the roots of economic growth won’t take hold as young people leave and investors look elsewhere. Antisocial behaviour has become a totemic issue undermining pride in place – and it’s welcome that the Sunak Government is giving this a renewed focus.

Last year’s White Paper suggested a fundamentally new approach to government, with the idiosyncrasies of left behind places brought to the fore to unlock their latent potential. New cabinet committees were promised alongside innovative approaches to data and a cohort of empowered Levelling Up Directors. These ideas were wonky, but they suggested a systemic shift that would outlive any individual fund, policy, or administration. This is a part of the agenda that Rishi Sunak should re-engage with energetically: the rewiring of the British state. 

A year on from the Levelling Up White Paper, both the agenda and the vision are fighting to remain relevant. The difficulty is balancing levelling up “fast” – tackling antisocial behaviour, rejuvenating high streets, saving bus routes – and levelling up “slow” – boosting productivity, building infrastructure, devolving power. Politically, the sweet spot is for the public to begin seeing the benefits of the agenda and believe that there is more to come. It’s that blend of tangible change and hope of more that could yet put the Conservatives on the narrow and steep path to victory in 2024. The political and practical cost of giving up on Levelling Up is too great.

Adam Hawksbee, Deputy Director

News and media

Open Goal, a new report by the Northern Research Group and Onward, was covered in The Sun, New Statesman and Yorkshire Post. Senior Researcher, Alex Luke, discussed the report on Times Radio.

Sebastian Payne highlighted the importance of combating anti-social behaviour to the levelling up agenda in the Times.

Adam Hawksbee was quoted in PoliticsHome on the importance of childcare reform which cited our report, First Steps.

Bloomberg UK cited Sebastian Payne in their report about the challenges for levelling up.

Green Jobs, Red Wall, is cited in Paul Waugh’s column on the five year window to secure green jobs for The i.

Upcoming event

Onward After Hours with Miriam Cates MP

On Tuesday, 21st February 2023, we will host a private drinks reception with Miriam Cates MP.

Onward After Hours is our event series for under 35s, connecting the next generation of centre-right political thinkers. These events bring together journalists, special advisors, parliamentary staffers and more, to inspire fresh thinking and build connections

If you would like to attend this event, sign up here.

Event Graphics 2023 4 - The Levelling Up White Paper: one year on

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