Michael Gove’s reappointment as Levelling Up Secretary in new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s cabinet, 15 weeks after he was sacked by Sunak’s predecessor-but-one, Boris Johnson is welcome.
Gove knows his subject, is committed, is a political heavyweight and presumably got some assurances from the new PM about the resources that will be available before accepting the post.
This presumption was bolstered by Sunak’s first speech as PM from Downing Street yesterday, when he included levelling up in a list of manifesto promises on which he said he would deliver – albeit the last item on that list that included a stronger NHS, better schools, safer streets, control of our borders, protecting our environment and supporting our armed forces.
He would deliver, he said: ‘Levelling up and building an economy that embraces the opportunities of Brexit, where businesses invest, innovate, and create jobs.’
Leaving aside the reference to Brexit opportunities, which is still contentious and was probably included as a rhetorical sop to the Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, this was a promising statement.
For a start, we can now be more confident that a second round of projects under the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund will be delivered by the end of the year, as indicated by Simon Clarke, one of two short-lived Levelling Up Secretaries since July, in the House of Commons last week.
The coupling of levelling up and building an economy side by side in a single sentence seems to indicate that Sunak sees levelling up as economic development policy, not a welfare policy for struggling individuals.
Welfare issues were dealt with in a separate part of the speech, where he promised to bring the same compassion to the challenges we face today as he did during Covid, ‘doing everything I could, to protect people and businesses, with schemes like furlough.’
He warned, however, of difficult decisions to come: ‘There are always limits, more so now than ever.’ So public services, many of which ae provided by local authorities, will probably not see any immediate extra cash if any, and there may even be further cuts.
Now that central government seems to have got its act together again, and we have some idea where levelling up policy is going between now and the next election, probably in 2024, under a Secretary of State who is a big hitter, even with resources more limited than we would like, it is high time for the North East’s regional leaders to do the same.
They should stop the bickering and dithering and complaining of the past six years, which serves no useful purpose but has only seen them fall behind much of the rest of northern England and the Midlands. Instead, they should do an expanded North East devolution deal, with or without County Durham, and make the most of whatever opportunities it offers – always remembering to be open and transparent and engage the public in the process. Let’s get on with it.