by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 12
January 2021
Response
15:00

Does the Government still care about levelling up?

The social fabric of our nation is fraying — it needs to be urgently addressed
by Peter Franklin
Boris on the campaign trail on the Isle of Wight.Credit: Dominic Lipinski – WPA Pool/Getty Images

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. 

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Kenneth Crook
Kenneth Crook
1 year ago

The title presumes that this government EVER cared about levelling up.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Kenneth Crook

You can be fairly sure they will do whatever it takes to retain the “red wall” seats …. so hopefully the end result will be some sort of positive anyway.

Real Horrorshow
Real Horrorshow
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

The government have already announced that instead of allowing local authorities to bid for the available funding, it will be allocated by an – unaccountable – central process i.e. where it will do them most good at the next election.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

And whether we like the process or not, that will probably result in more money going to “red wall” areas than might otherwise had been the case.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago

Unless you address the only means by which leveling up can occur and remain, it’s a pointless exercise. You’ll simply have to level up again and again. The only thing that truly produces leveling up is jobs and education. In reverse and continuing order. No one is truly invested in society without education and a job (which usually but does not always mean a paid job).

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Exactly. As I have said countless time here and elsewhere, until you fix and education system that is devoid of all reason, rigour or discipline it’s all moot. And you can’t fix the education system without taking on the left-wing teaching unions and educational establishment, which has no interest in teaching anything except perhaps CRT. That means putting Katherine Birbalsingh in charge and, probably, bringing in some maths and science teachers from China and Russia.

Real Horrorshow
Real Horrorshow
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Fixing an education system that’s being handed to academy trusts and fleeced against the wishes of parents would be a better place to start. We have plenty of able teachers in this country – until they get sick of the penny pinching and nonsense inflicted by one education minister after another.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
1 year ago

The one thing that has not happened in the education system is penny pinching.
The great Tony Blair increased the amount spent on education enormously and that increase has been kept by the conservatives.
The increase in spending has coincided with a drop down in our educational results – Se the PISA rankings.

Many of the academies have had startling results – particularly in London, so they can work very well.

If you keen on the wishes of parents, try an education voucher system. Allowing parents more choice of schools for their children, would make parents more involved in the outcomes for their children.

Real Horrorshow
Real Horrorshow
1 year ago

The one thing that has not happened in the education system is penny pinching.

If you mean the salaries of academy trust chairmen or the fees paid to their friends and families for ill-specified “services”. Then that is indeed bountious.
If you mean money spent on pupils, then it’s another story.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago

Having been involved in numerous ‘community’ groups and initiatives including training in community development, what the report fails to identify is what is a meaningful unit of community.

It certainly isn’t a city or a town but something much closer to the scale of a village. In this respect, for a city dweller like myself, the meaningful unit of community is a ward based civic grouping such as a neighbourhood forum or a community development trust. Other community groupings which might have a wider territory appeal such as the Birmingham Open Spaces Forum or the West Midlands Wildlife Trust tend to attract a narrow often liberal left segment of the place based community as a whole.

In this respect, I can only relate to this report through the conduit of a ward based community grouping since beyond that the demographic of the community group radically reduces in diversity.

Hence, perhaps what is missing in order to better ground the report is a specific focus on the existing democratic system of Constituencies and Wards and how the measures outlined can be used by Constituencies and Wards via civic community groupings to better empower citizens through elected Councillors and MPs.

For some reason, the authors of this report entirely bypasses the current political system and seeks to overlay an additional system which like the Localism Act and The Sustainable Communities Act effectively pits civic groups against civic groups who will be competing over scarce capital with elected Councillors and unelected Council officials making the final decision.

We need measures that bind citizens at the Constituency and Ward level especially within cities and towns so that citizens at these local scales can come together to achieve superordinate goals.

This report does not make that clear with an assumption that any capital will be administered fairly through local authority procedures which simply reinforces notions of us and them. That is those with power and those without.

Therefore, I’d suggest that to make the recommended ideas work in practice, then a meaningful unit of community would probably work best at the Ward level with the strengthening or the creation of neighbourhood forums within Wards which then enables local citizens to engage with one another as well as engaging with their Councillors and MPs too.

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
1 year ago

The UK needs a Job Guarantee which offers a fixed, socially inclusive wage job undertaking work of public benefit to anyone willing and able to work funded by the national government while overseen and managed by local government.

The aim is to replace unemployment and underemployment with paid employment (up to the hours desired by workers), so that those who are at any point in time surplus to the requirements of the private sector (and mainstream public sector) can earn a wage rather than be underemployed or suffer poverty and social exclusion.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago
Reply to  Colin Haller

Or those willing to work could just go get jobs.

ccauwood
ccauwood
1 year ago

Traditionally I’d say liberal was kind, easy going, live and let live, not laissez faire which implies dog eat dog, sink or swim, the sort of stuff middle class antifascist kids spout from their £800 ipads. Add safety nets and we move in a liberal direction again. Add ceilings, we’re back in 21C.
China. To say stop buying their cheap stuff and destroy their burgeoning economy will have one lot saying ‘don’t punish their people’, the other ‘let them rot and die.’ ‘It’s cheap though’ to ‘It’s stealing our jobs.’
I notice on a lower level a busy craft industry with crowd funding and development grants. Youngsters making electronic things, writing software for tiny inexpensive £50 Arduino computers that can turn your hosepipe on from the Canaries and change the heat settings prior to arrival back home. Youngish men, mainly, experimenting with turning old builders’ vans into campers. At the extreme installing electric motors. All components admittedly from China and USA. Start making them here. Start teaching them here. We can mend practically anything by watching Youtube or asking Google. Antiques, retro, restoration and upcycling are in vogue – at present it’s the TV people benefitting most.
Evidence of needs must from the effects embargoes had on Israel, S Africa and Iran.
After all you don’t need a new TV, there’s nothing much in the house that can’t be reconditioned and cars, soon to be regulated away from fossil fuel, last an age now and some enterprising lad will work out how to fit whichever power source works.
I stood in a queue years ago at a council waste disposal lorry. TVs, irons, furniture, HiFis, the lot, being dumped. “We’ll be mining this in a few years” laughed the queue. Bring back the welding, brick laying, electrical courses to the regional colleges. Sorry kids, the boomers had to do this once. Your turn. Get your hands dirty, boys and girls. Levelling down and up time. Now there’s a great reset. We may have to sink or swim. Could be fun.