“Levelling up” entered the political lexicon in the UK during the 2019 general election, and its inclusion in the 2021 Budget and last week’s Queen’s speech cemented its importance within UK policymaking. But the language of levelling up has not always been particularly clear, leading to questions about what the government’s agenda really is. So what – if any – is the substance behind levelling up? Or is it just “a slogan without a purpose”, as Number 10 staff refer to it, according to the Financial Times?
The prime minister seems to have recognised that something needs to be done to put flesh on the bones of the agenda, or at least better communicate what it means. Indeed, his appointment of Neil O’Brien, the Conservative MP for Harborough, suggests the government is concerned by a lack of clarity around the agenda.
According to the BBC, the idea behind levelling up is that “communities that feel they have been left behind get a chance to catch up”. It appears straightforward then: the levelling up agenda is the government’s attempt to address place-based inequalities in the UK. But what are the details of how this is supposed to be achieved?
Both the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund and £3.6 billion Towns Fund will boost investment in local infrastructure, with the latter focusing on funding for 101 towns and by working with local businesses and political leaders to create bespoke projects.
Current proposals and agreed projects are promising and demonstrate local leadership. For example, Warrington’s projects were developed with extensive consultation with local communities and directed by a Project Board consisting of local politicians and community leaders. As a result, the projects appear to be well integrated and tailored to the town’s needs.
The language used and the stated aims appear to confirm that the levelling up agenda is about spreading prosperity to relatively deprived areas. However, the meaning of levelling up becomes less clear when the allocation process of the funds is considered.
The Levelling Up Fund is open to all local areas but will “prioritise bids to drive growth and regeneration in places in need, those facing particular challenges, and areas that have received less government investment in recent years.” However, elements of the selection process that were released following the 2021 budget have received criticism from opposition parties and journalists, with many highlighting the fact that some relatively affluent constituencies of ministers (such as Richmond, Rishi Sunak’s constituency) are set to receive grants.
The fact that a measure of relative deprivation does not enter into the selection formula at all, while “journey time to employment by car” is the measure that is given the most significant weighting has also been criticised.
The allocation process for the Towns Fund has also been controversial, with some MPs claiming the criteria used was politically motivated.
The 541 towns with an income deprivation level above the median value were sorted into high, medium and low priority using seven metrics, including income and skills deprivation, EU exit exposure, investment opportunity and alignment to wider government intervention.
The last two metrics arguably prioritise funding to already productive places that are receiving private investment and government attention. This raises questions about the focus of the levelling up agenda and the balance being struck between helping the most deprived areas and value-for-money investments.
Based on these criteria, towns were placed in high, medium, and low priority groups. All 40 high-priority towns were selected to bid for funding. 49 out of 318 medium-priority towns, and 12 out of 183 low-priority towns were selected for the remaining 61 spaces.
This part of the process moved away from the original criteria with many towns that scored highly on the seven metrics not gaining access to the Towns Fund. In the medium priority group, only nine of the top 100 scorers were selected.
The differences in selection criteria between the Levelling Up Fund and the Towns Fund dilute the meaning of the term – the government has no consistent measure of where levelling up is needed.
Other uses of levelling up
While the central policies in the levelling up agenda don’t provide complete clarity on what levelling up means, they do consistently use the language in relation to place-based inequality. The same cannot be said for other policies which the government has sought to include under the levelling up umbrella.
The 2020 National Infrastructure Strategy employs the language of levelling up liberally. The Chancellor opens the policy paper by stating that “levelling up is my Government’s core purpose” and that he will “use infrastructure to unite and level up the UK.”
Rhetorical attention is given to towns that “face economic and social deprivation”, but there are also promises to invest in “boosting the UK’s […] cities”. In fact, the biggest commitments – £5 billion on bus and cycling services, the National Infrastructure Bank, £4.2 billion for intra-city transport, and £27 billion for strategic roads – are not focused on deprived areas at all. But this doesn’t stop the language of levelling up being used throughout.
Around infrastructure, then, we see the language of levelling up shifting from a specific focus on deprived areas to something more diffuse.
The wide use of the levelling up language in relation to education policy and funding arguably dilutes its meaning further still.
The rhetoric of “levelling up standards” and “spreading opportunity” are common in press releases and policy documents relating to education, but the place-based focus is lost entirely. Here, levelling up appears to mean a general commitment to increased spending; the flagship policies are countrywide and smaller programmes, such as the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, are largely targeted at individuals.
This application of the language to individuals rather than places adds confusion to the meaning of levelling up – it is not being used solely in relation to “communities that feel they have been left behind”, as the BBC says.
How should we interpret the language of levelling up?
Arguably, then, the language of levelling up is about adding a sense of cohesion between various spending commitments. This language taps into an issue – place-based inequality – that voters are concerned about and is vague enough that it can apply to a variety of contexts.
While this language can be understood as a rhetorical device, it would be unfair to say that there is no substance behind the agenda. Clearly, policies such as the Towns Fund and the Levelling Up Fund will provide investment in struggling areas.
Nonetheless, the inconsistent use of the language dilutes the central message, and collectively offers an opaque sense of what it means to ensure everywhere gets their “fair share of […] future prosperity”. If O’Brien is to succeed in his task of making sense of this agenda, this will need to be addressed.
Jack Summers is a Research Assistant at The Policy Institute, King's College London.