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02/09/2021

Louise Brooke-Smith: Up the Levellers and up yer levelling up!

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The ‘levelling-up’ agenda calls to mind a previous effort to reduce social inequality. Louise Brooke-Smith wonders what we can learn from the Levellers (not the band).

If ever a phrase was meant to instil a feeling of fairness and equality, it is ‘levelling up’. But when it’s a mainstay of political strategy, then inevitably cynicism creeps in.

It’s a shame because ‘levelling’ has been at the heart of social consciousness for some time. I’m not talking of the Brighton-based folk-rock group, although those Levellers took their name from people who made a mark on the country’s psyche during the English Civil War.

Those 17th century Levellers advocated for suffrage, equality and religious tolerance. They were innovative in using pamphlets, petitions and the press to share their thoughts and they encouraged communities across England to push for a fair deal. So what happened to them? History buffs will recall that after the Civil War, power was held by the army and opposition groups faded away.

Jump to the 2020s, and we find that ‘levelling up’ remains a political hot potato. We’ve still got communities who don’t have a fair slice of the cake. Sadly, it seems that 400 years hasn’t taught us much: the Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that regional disparities across the UK are way above those in comparable developed economies. Even after trying to get the statistics to play ball rather than tell damn lies, it has been impossible to show that living standards across the UK regions are equal.

So in comes the government to try to even things up. But it’s not that easy. Productivity across the country simply isn’t the same. Nor is investment into research and development. Whether it’s funds for high-tech industries or education (particularly universities), the hard truth is that more investment has been made in the South East, and Northern reaches have missed out.

Having sorted out Brexit and dealt with the pandemic, the time is nigh to level up the country and get the Britain’s economy rolling again across all its constituent parts. Nearly £5 billion has been identified by the chief wizard of the exchequer to plough into town centres and local transport. We won’t be churlish and ask how it is that so many blue flag-waving town centres have managed to get a large chunk of that dosh, but as the ‘red wall’ across the North has been breached, at least some of those lucky recipients lie north of the Watford Gap.

“The loss of our European brethren from hospitality, farming and healthcare can’t be swept under the shagpile forever”

We await the white paper on devolution and local recovery to see what might follow from rejuvenating tired town centres and see which regions north of Birmingham might see a relocation of civil servants. Darlington is holding its breath for the arrival of the Treasury and the Department for Business and some from HMCLG are house-hunting around Wolverhampton.

As the UK Infrastructure Bank is heading for Leeds, it might be the turning point and mean that investment in basics, like railways joining one side of the country to the other, could have a realistic chance of materialising before they are made redundant as we move on to private drones and Star Trek-style teleporters. 

The penny has dropped about training and skills, although there needs to be a more concerted sell on apprenticeships. And the loss of our European brethren from hospitality, farming and healthcare can’t be swept under the shagpile forever. But, never fear, we have big shiny freeports to look forward to!

So levelling up will be done and we can sleep soundly knowing that Brexit has been an overwhelming success, the pandemic is under control and equality across the UK will be here before you can say ‘Up the revolution!’ 

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

Image credit | Zara-Picken

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