The levelling up agenda, one of the key challenges of Sadiq Khan’s second term was featured as the last session of LSE London’s 2021 Mayoral series. Khan’s re-election secured Labour’s dominance in the capital and the strength of his own leadership in London as the party continues to lose ground in its former strongholds across the Midlands and Northern England. Here we bring out some implications.
The levelling up agenda is sold as a shift in the UK’s political and economic geography, alleviating disparities between four decades of London-centric growth and prosperity and patterns of industrial decline further north. Our panel discussed what this strategy involves in terms of opportunities and challenges for London, adding to the pressures of the ongoing fallout of Brexit and Covid-19 and large scale infrastructure projects such as HS2.
What is levelling up?
Newly elected Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, promised his support to the “forgotten people and the left-behind towns” through creating new jobs, boosting training opportunities and increasing productivity. The Town’s Fund, Levelling up Fund and UK Shared Prosperity Fund have all been allocated to support these goals.
Johnson’s slogan was catchy, but the concept far from innovative. The idea of levelling up originated in the 1920s, and was used by successive post-war governments who made their own attempts at tackling the country’s endemic place-based inequalities. Levelling up was revived in mainstream discourse during the Brexit referendum and aftermath and capitalised on by Conservatives in the 2019 election.
Far from being the promised ‘golden sea of opportunity’, Brexit has so far left the country facing very considerable problems. Whilst London and the South East may be able to cope with the harmful effects of Brexit (and the aftermath of Covid-19), other towns and cities in the North and Midlands will be hit harder, which is where the levelling up agenda comes in.
What makes the agenda different this time around?
Discourse around levelling up is based on a renewed focus and priority on skills, education and employment opportunities across the Midlands and North. While emphasising towns, the agenda does not assume a strong urban vs. rural divide, offering cities such as Manchester and Birmingham opportunities to support more high value employment. An emphasis has been put on higher education as a place-based plan to retain high-skilled individuals in the north.
Employment strategies will need to align with this plan as the benefits of education, particularly qualifications that focus on new and emerging technologies, need to be captured where they are developed. A potential problem with levelling up is that individuals will be trained in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester but will then traditionally move to London where there are more job opportunities – this problem could be exacerbated with the creation of HS2. Rather than dispersing growth, it could act as a conduit pulling high earners with skills needed across the country, back into the capital.
What does Levelling up mean for London?
Levelling up puts Sadiq Khan in a challenging position: he is under pressure to pursue a national agenda of an opposing party, potentially alienating Londoners who resist falling into the simplistic trap of London vs the rest of the country, when disparities within the capital show that London has levelling up needs of its own. The lack of quality and affordable housing combined with stagnant incomes leaves many Londoners trapped in cycles of persistent poverty.
There may be opportunities for Khan to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. If he ever wanted to lead Labour to a general election win, he will need to regain the support of the Red Wall voters who have turned to the conservatives in recent years. Supporting the levelling up agenda or at least being seen to do so will be essential. This could look like building alliances with Northern towns and cities that voted conservative, as well as other metropolitan Labour governments. One high profile idea has been the decentralization of the civil service. Whilst an interesting starting point towards the reallocating powers within the country it remains unclear on how popular this could be for both civil servants and the general public- or indeed how effective it would be if power remains in a London based Parliament.
The levelling up strategy poses many questions and challenges for regional and city leaders, including the Mayor of London. Sadiq Khan will have to address not only regional disparities, fuelled by big scale projects such as HS2, and the Oxford/Cambridge Arc but also London specific inequalities. Indeed, the future of work post pandemic remains uncertain with remote working offering many white-collar Londoners flexibility in location at least for part of the week. This privilege has bisected the workforce into those who can make the choice to get away from London’s high rents and those who will continue to face the high costs of living in London. Effective levelling up policies will ultimately entail addressing the needs of different groups of people and households across varying cities and regions.