People in the North East who want to know what levelling up means need look no further than Teesside. That at least is the advice of Michael Gove in a speech at the Conservative Party conference, and it matters because he is the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up.
The meaning of levelling up has been puzzling commentators ever since it formed an important part of the Tories’ appeal to the ‘red wall’ constituencies in the north and Midlands that switched from Labour at the 2019 general election and swept Boris Johnson to power.
‘Levelling up means four things’, Gove told the Tory conference. ‘We want to strengthen local leadership to drive real change.
‘We will raise living standards, especially where they are lower.
‘We will improve public services, especially where they are weaker.
‘And we will give people the resources necessary to enhance the pride they feel in the place they live’.
Then, in a fulsome political tribute to Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, Gove went on:
‘And if you want to see all four in action and see levelling-up in reality, come to Tees-side (sic).
‘The Conservative mayor exemplifies great local leadership. He is bringing tens of thousands of new, high-paying jobs to the area to give many more a better life.
‘He is changing the face of transport and further education to ensure services work better for all and especially those who’ve been overlooked in the past.
‘And he’s changing the face of Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Hartlepool with new businesses and brighter high streets, giving those towns their pride back.
‘Tees-side, neglected for decades under Labour – its proud heart nearly broken, now revived,
regenerated, renewed by the Conservative leadership of the amazing Ben Houchen.
‘That is levelling up in action. That is our party’s mission for the whole country.
‘In my department that will mean investing in urban regeneration, with new homes on neglected brownfield sites, a better deal for those in social housing and helping more of those who currently rent to own their own homes.
‘And it will mean empowering local government to make a bigger difference for good, allowing communities to take back control of their futures and creating greener and more beautiful places to live.
‘But every department in this government must be a department for levelling-up. And every part of the United Kingdom will share in this mission. We are the government of the whole United Kingdom’.
Neil O’Brien, a minister in Gove’s department, made the same four points as his boss, in slightly different words, when explaining the meaning of levelling up at a conference fringe event hosted by the think tank Policy Exchange. According to a report in PoliticsHome he said it involved empowering local leaders and communities, growing the private sector in areas with lower living standards, improving public services, and heightening civic pride.
Gove’s highly political speech, as was to be expected at a party conference, will be picked over by supporters and opponents alike for clues about what to expect from the levelling up agenda until it is superseded by the White Paper on Levelling Up expected some time this autumn.
Three aspects of the speech already stand out, however. One is the reference to strengthening local leadership, which implies more widespread devolution and greater powers for devolved authorities. Coupled with Gove’s extraordinary tribute to Mayor Ben Houchen and his work in Tees Valley, this implies that devolved authorities will continue to be favoured by the government. Undevolved councils like the four south of the Tyne should take note.
A second notable aspect of the speech was the reference to improving public services where they are weaker. That is a point that North East councillors certainly will seize on to strengthen their demands for increased funding.
The third aspect, related to the second, is that government will give the resources necessary to enhance pride of place to the people who live there, and the statement that the government will allow communities to take back control of their futures. This suggests that local councils, especially perhaps those without devolution deals, may in some areas of activity be by-passed, with funding going directly to community organisations.
The fact that Neil O’Brien made essentially the same points as Gove at a separate meeting is encouraging in the sense that, whatever one thinks of the levelling up agenda, it shows there is at least some consistency and coherence forming around it in government in contrast to the uncertainty when Boris Johnson was in personal charge.
However these issues play out in the months and years to come, to return to Gove’s tribute to Houchen: if the mayor has decided to hitch his fortunes to Gove’s wagon (and Rishi Sunak’s), rather than Boris Johnson’s, as I speculated on September 23 , then his decision paid off big time at this week’s conference.
Houchen himself describes his relationship with Johnson as a collegiate one rather than a friendship. He told Georgina Bailey for The House magazine: ‘I get on with the Prime Minister, he’s been very kind to me over the last couple of years. It’d be nice to say I was friends with the Prime Minister, but no’.
Be that as it may, and whoever in the Conservative Party and the government the mayor is most closely associated with, it seems he no longer needs a mentor on whose coat tails he can ride. He now has enough political momentum of his own to keep the Ben Houchen Show on the road – and with increasing momentum.
(This post was updated on October 8 to include references to Neil O’Brien’s remarks on levelling up)