Localis analysis of the May 2021 Queen’s Speech
Yesterdays Queen’s Speech was undeniably short on surprises, yet there is still some new information to be gleaned on the size and shape of the Levelling Up agenda and the future of local government in England, which we expound upon below. The entire speech and supporting documents are available here.
Levelling up slides into focus
When looking back at the last few years of political economy, A-Level 21st Century History students of the future will surely marvel at the breakneck speed with which Britain’s entire governing orthodoxy pulled a U-Turn. In early 2019, we feared that the story of low productivity and regional underinvestment which opened our report ‘Hitting Reset’ was perhaps too far removed from the government line of a country experiencing economic growth and a ‘jobs miracle’. In 2021, that growth has been acknowledged as paltry and unevenly distributed and the ‘jobs miracle’ had already disappeared from ministerial lips when COVID put paid to its underlying statistics. The section of the Queen’s Speech background briefing justifying the government’s focus on Levelling Up could have been lifted from any recent Localis report, or indeed from one of our localist fellow travellers on either side of the political divide. The new orthodoxy is clear: London and the South East have been overdeveloped to the great detriment of the rest of the country, and the time has come to rebalance.
This view is entirely correct, but the way to address the problem it illuminates is the crucial question. We know of course that the attempt to do so will be called ‘Levelling Up’, but does the Queen’s Speech and its accompanying documentation actually get us any closer to understanding the policy mechanisms for achieving this goal? A little bit. The first-glance reaction should be one of deep concern for London and the South East. The sense that the Levelling Up White Paper’s lead-in gives is not one of a national levelling up achieved through spreading productivity gains from the capital outwards – which would make the most sense in terms of economic growth theory – but of redirecting investment and public funding away from London and the Conservative heartland in the South, towards the historically underdeveloped towns (cities don’t get much of a look in, at least in this documentation) that make up the former Red Wall. At last, a clear definition is given for what the target destination of levelling up is: “places that have seen economic decline”. That’s a broad definition, but it probably doesn’t include Kent and Surrey and could very well be mis-applied to exclude the entirety of Greater London.
Local government still MIA
Yet in this remarkable reformulation of the national economic orthodoxy, what has really changed for local government? The trajectory is the same: services will continue to decline, as local taxes continue to rise, all to serve the maintenance of the deep and long-running national embarrassment which is our failure to reform adult social care. Meanwhile, the tearing up of the planning system, with local democracy reduced to a swift and efficient box-ticking detour on the fast road to new development, will further complicate life for those Conservative foot soldiers, the councils of the home counties. For what offer can any local party, anywhere in the country put forward based on the current legislative programme other than, for those eligible, “we might get some of the pot”? Duties for local government flow easily through the Queen’s Speech briefing, with councils expected to do more on serious crime, domestic violence and early years development. Corresponding information on finance is much harder to come by; the element on ‘levelling up public services’ contains no provisions for or even mention of local authorities.
Furthermore, Cities and Local Growth Deals are now mentioned purely in connection with the devolved nations. On the skills side, lifetime learning guarantees are reiterated, yet no detail is given on how people would fund their lives while engaged in this re-or-up-skilling. Nor is there any clear coordinating role given for local business and democratic leadership in, so that these skills might be assured of some value in the local market they are traded in. In the great charge to level up England then, local government remains missing in action. The great frustration here is not just one of throwing up hands and moaning that it isn’t fair, it is a matter of decrying tremendous inefficiency. In many cases, there are already strategies in place and institutional arrangements in operation which could contribute greatly to achieving the aims of the levelling up agenda. Local authorities north and south of the Watford Gap have been working on place-focused local economic development for many years longer than the task has been set as the central goal of British government. If central government cannot find a way to give places some autonomy in the Levelling Up White Paper, the entire project is imperilled.
The challenge ahead
The potential problems lurking down the road for this government are fairly obvious – can the North be consolidated through making good on promises for levelling up before the South is entirely lost in the wake of what one former prime minister has called an “open season for developers” on rural land? If not, the government risks being in the position of managing a disappointed new voter base and a infuriated old one simultaneously. Success will hinge on whether growth can be achieved, and as we have argued consistently, this cannot happen with any kind of efficiency while the government remains so staunchly centralist in its approach. Whitehall alone cannot be all things to all people all of the time. A sensible amount of devolved responsibility to the cities and towns in the South, particularly London, whose recovery is essential to avoiding a national economy stuck in a crater of low growth, could feasibly free up ministerial time and effort, as well as creating resources for the great levelling up project.