Andy Haldane to head Levelling Up Taskforce

Two new developments this weekend following on from last week’s government reshuffle signal that Boris Johnson is finally taking the levelling up pledge in the Conservative Party manifesto of 2019 seriously.

Last week Michael Gove was moved from the Cabinet Office to become Secretary of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) with cross-government responsibility for levelling up.

Now, in what is clearly meant as a signal of intent, the MHCLG is being re-named the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Whether the new Department will succeed in delivering on its central mission to level up every part of the UK, as it claims, or the name change is just symbolic, remains to be seen. But with Gove at the helm, there is reason to hope that the levelling up agenda will be pushed forward energetically, as I argued last week.

In a second encouraging development today, Andy Haldane, a former chief economist at the Bank of England, was appointed as the new Head of the Levelling Up Taskforce, jointly established by the Prime Minister and Gove. He will be based in the Cabinet Office as a permanent secretary on secondment from the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), where he is chief executive, for six months.

Gove will also have the support of Neil O’Brien, who was Johnson’s adviser on levelling up and is now Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the new Department.

According to the government: ‘The Secretary of State [Gove] will drive cross-Whitehall efforts to deliver a programme of tangible improvements in every part of the UK as we build back better from the pandemic and deliver on the people’s priorities’ and there is some reason to hope that the new team of Gove, O’Brien and Haldane will do that.

Gove and O’Brien at least will probably be looking for shovel-ready projects and quick fixes that can be sold to the public at the next general election as evidence that levelling up is working.

But Haldane’s position gives rise to hope that, while the six-month limit to his secondment suggests that we can hope for firm and detailed plans, if not delivery, within that period, he will also add the longer-term thinking that will be needed if levelling up is to be a lasting success.

As a civil servant he should be above electoral considerations; and his background, raised and educated in Yorkshire, gives reason to hope that he understands what is required for levelling up the north.

Boris Johnson said: ‘This government is committed to uniting and levelling up every part of the UK and I am determined that as we build back better from the pandemic we are geared up with the teams and expertise to deliver on that promise.

‘Andy is uniquely qualified to lead our efforts to raise living standards, spread opportunity, improve our public services and restore people’s sense of pride in their communities. I look forward to working with him, and with my new ministerial team, to deliver the opportunities this country needs.

Michael Gove said: ‘I’m thrilled that the PM has asked me to lead the levelling up agenda, the defining mission of this government. With a superb team of ministers and officials in a new department, our relentless focus will be on delivering for those overlooked families and undervalued communities across the United Kingdom.’

Andy Haldane said: ‘Levelling up the UK is one of the signature challenges of our time. It has also been a personal passion throughout my professional career. So, I am delighted and honoured to be making a contribution to this crucial objective by heading the new Levelling Up Taskforce. I look forward to working with colleagues across government, local and national, and with the private and voluntary sectors, to design and deliver an economy that works for every part of the UK.’

It is now up to politicians in the North East to match the government’s apparent renewal and re-energisation of its commitment to levelling up by taking the steps needed to reunite the area’s seven councils in a single combined authority with a single devolution deal north and south of the Tyne in order to make the most of whatever opportunities are offered by the Levelling Up White Paper due this autumn. That the North East is still split along the line of the river, five years after rejecting a previous government devolution offer, is just not good enough. Councillors should act quickly before they miss another opportunity. Time is running out