Getting Brexit done. Beating Covid. Levelling up. These are the Government’s top three priorities. Except that the third is in danger of being forgotten.
Yes, they’ve already announced more spending on things like transport links. There’s also a determination to make sure that the whole country benefits from public investment, not just the South-East.
But levelling up isn’t just about concrete and tarmac. Last year, the Onward think tank published a report showing that the social fabric of our nation is fraying. Across a variety of metrics, family and community relationships were found to be significantly weaker in some parts of the country than others. And that was drawing on evidence gathered before the devastating impact of the pandemic — and multiple lockdowns — upon our private and public lives.
However, this makes the task of social regeneration all the more urgent. There will be no recovery from the current crisis, nor from our underlying social problems, unless we restore the human connections that make life worth living.
There is a long history of governments talking about issues of ‘social capital’, but then doing very little about them. A cynic might think that’s because there’s very little that can be done. After all, ministers can order roads to be built, but they can’t just make ‘community spirit’ happen.
What they can do, however, is provide local people and places with the political power and the financial capital to shape their own communities for the better. Today, Onward publishes a follow-up report, The Policies of Belonging, which lays out a long-term programme for doing just that. Ideas include letting people draw down a year of their pensions early to enable them to take a “civic sabbatical” in service to the local community. Another is to make it much easier for an area to form a parish or town council (only 25% of England is currently covered by one).
You don’t have to agree with all 17 proposals in the report to see that there’s a huge amount that could be done. So why isn’t the Government doing it? Or, more, to the point who isn’t doing it? The answer to that is ‘everyone’ and ‘no one’. That’s because government departments don’t decentralise power and resources unless they’re made to do it — preferably by a minister given full Prime Ministerial authority to bash down the bureaucratic and political obstacles. Unfortunately, no such role currently exists.
Boris Johnson needs to put that right as a matter of urgency. Obviously, he’s got plenty of other things to worry about at the moment — like getting the country vaccinated and ending the suppression of normal life. Nevertheless, he still needs to look ahead. In all likelihood, the next general election will take place years after Brexit got done and (let’s hope) years after the end of the last lockdown.
In 2019, millions of voters across the country turned to the Tories for the first time. In 2024 they’ll be asking themselves whether they’ve really been given the chance to take back control.