North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Gove takes charge of levelling up: what does it mean for the North East?

Levelling up has a new champion in government. Michael Gove, formerly Cabinet Office Minister, was appointed Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in yesterday’s cabinet reshuffle, and in his new role ‘takes on cross-government responsibility for levelling up’.

Meanwhile, in another boost for Tees Valley, the MP for Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East, Simon Clarke, was today appointed to the Cabinet in the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, where he will serve under Chancellor Rishi Sunak, MP for nearby Richmond.

It is much too early to know what Gove’s appointment will mean for regions like the North East, which are pinning their hope, if not their faith, on the government’s levelling up agenda. But there are some things we do know and others we can reasonably speculate about.

It is only four months since we were reporting here that the Prime Minister was taking personal charge of the promised Levelling Up White Paper and had appointed the MP for Harborough, Neil O’Brien, as his adviser on the subject. It might seem frustrating that responsibility for a task so important to the North East is changing hands again.

But there has been little evidence that the Prime Minister has been getting a grip on the subject, and his one speech on levelling up on July 15 was widely criticised for lack of detail, though it did open the door for county devolution deals for the likes of County Durham. A cynic might think Johnson’s main personal contribution to levelling up the North East has been his visits to Tees Valley for barely-concealed party political photo opportunities with Mayor Ben Houchen.

However, with the best will in the world, it was probably always unrealistic to expect any Prime Minister, with so much else on his plate, to stay on top of the levelling up agenda personally. This is why delegation is such an important part of the job.

In delegating to Gove, we can hope Johnson has made a good choice. To someone who admittedly knows him only through the media, he seems smart and tough and as a possible future Prime Minister he probably carries enough clout in Whitehall to be able to fulfil the cross-government responsibility his new role calls for.

As an ambitious politician, Gove will want to make a success of levelling up, and that is a reason for hope that the agenda will be pushed forward energetically.

According to Northern Agenda today, Westminster journalists were briefed that Johnson’s new team would have a laser focus on ‘building back better from the pandemic, and the ever expanding ‘levelling up’ agenda. 

On the downside, it is notable that Gove’s responsibilities for regional development explicitly include the Midlands Engine but not the Northern Powerhouse. While wishing the Midlands well, the north must hope that this does not signal any unfair favouritism for the former.

One suggestion of how Gove might approach his new role is worth quoting because it is published on the ConservativeHome website, which is close to party and ministerial thinking. Andrew Gimson writes:

‘Levelling up must not mean imposing uniformity from Whitehall, as so often happened after 1945, with the great industries of the United Kingdom, and its great towns and cities, subjected to the dead hand of central control.

‘The United Kingdom will flourish best when its constituent parts are free, and no minister is more likely to rejoice in freedom, and in its corollary, variety, than Gove’.

The local politicians who lead the North East (excluding Tees Valley), and particularly the leaders of Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham who constitute the North East Combined Authority (NECA) – who have still not done a devolution deal five years after rejecting the government’s last offer – have one good reason to be worried about Gove’s appointment.

NECA met again this week and there was still no apparent movement towards a devolution deal – merely a report that discussions are continuing with the neighbouring North of Tyne Combined Authority, which does have a deal, about what ‘asks’ to make of the government: a report that was simply ‘noted’.

If the four council leaders think they are going to be able to force Gove to concede more than his predecessors were willing to do, they should think again. He will be no pushover and unless they are willing to co-operate on the government’s terms he will probably be content to leave them to their own devices until the next general election. They should do a devolution deal now on the best terms they can get in order to be able to take full advantage of whatever opportunities are contained in the Levelling Up White Paper when it is published this autumn.