Redwood’s Thomas Gibson considers how Michael Gove might deliver the Prime Minister’s promise to level up the country.
The past few weeks have demonstrated how easy it is to make a promise and how dangerous it is for a Prime Minister to be seen to break it. Having raised expectations in a range of policy areas – HS2, social care and levelling up being some notable examples – the Government is having to row back as its promises hit reality.
Redwood Consulting’s Tom Gibson, went to hear Gove face his first grilling from MPs since he became Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Gove has started the process of providing some much-needed definition to ‘Levelling Up’ and has set out some milestones by which it can be judged. It is very important for the Government that it is, at the very least, seen to have made a good start by the time of the next General Election if its new supporters in the former ‘Red Wall’ are to keep faith in Boris Johnson as their Prime Minister.
The answers that he provided to MPs on the Communities & Local Government Select Committee demonstrate that:
- Local Conservative leaders will play a crucial part to play in delivery.
- The regeneration and development industries will find themselves in the front line in delivering the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda.
Levelling Up: What’s it all about?
Gove began by providing a workable definition of what levelling-up actually entails: “Making opportunity more equal across the country”, he told MPs, informing them that his agenda would be led by an “analysis… that while there are lots of good things about the United Kingdom… one of the problems we have… is that while talent is spread equally across the Country, opportunity isn’t.”
So far, the Government’s focus has been on physical, tangible improvements such as investment in transport infrastructure. Under Gove’s definition ‘Levelling Up’ brings new emphasis on four areas: Local leadership, living standards, public services and ‘pride of place’. This last point is crucial if Johnson’s new Red Wall supporters are to keep faith with the Government. The language that Gove has previously used is telling. Referencing Ben Houchen, Mayor of Tees Valley, Gove told the Conservative Party Conference that “… he’s changing the face of Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Hartlepool with new businesses and brighter high streets, giving those amazing towns their pride back who have been neglected for decades under Labour, their proud hearts nearly broken.”
He also sees community involvement in the development of local areas playing a role in levelling up – for example, he supports Street Vote proposals advocated by Policy Exchange and backbench Tory MPs for getting people involved in the future of their local built environment.
The forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper will add further detail. In the meantime, the definition that Gove has started to provide offers the regeneration and development industries an indication of the way in which their contribution will start to be assessed – helping local mayors and councils to deliver pride of place through excellent design and working with communities.
The organisation behind levelling up
While initiatives such as Street Vote may sound like a return to the localism of the Coalition Government, Gove is clear about the Government’s central, directing role. He does not favour the suggestion that local authorities can keep the lion’s share of business rates and intends to position himself in a role where he takes as many MPs as possible with him.
He is keen to replicate a system that he developed for Brexit and the response to COVID where cabinet committees were established to help keep the project on track. He has also moved quickly to begin discussions with Tory MPs – particularly those from the Northern Research Group – and has also been holding meetings with Ministers across the different Whitehall departments to get their views. He sees levelling up as being pushed forward across Government and not just his own Department. Gove has a reputation for ‘getting things done’ and these management structures are key to help him do the same with the levelling up agenda.
Levelling Up: What is it not all about?
Following the backlash by Conservative MPs in the South and the Chesham & Amersham by-election loss, Gove’s direction of travel does not appear to involve forcing through more development in Southern areas. He has signalled that he intends to retreat from the more controversial elements of the Planning Bill whilst retaining those parts that are more popular among Conservative MPs and supporters – notably measures to improve the design of new buildings, which plays well into the ‘pride of place’ theme referenced above.
Indeed, in marked difference to Jenrick’s approach, Mr Gove put the private sector at the centre of his housing strategy, by attempting to use market forces to increase supply and indicating that British financiers needed to liberalise entry to capital for first time buyers and increase mortgage availability for the young. “A problem in the American housing market”, he commented, “led people here to be overcautious in aspects of their lending”, downplaying lessons learnt in the aftermath of the Great Recession. While this liberalisation could expand the UK’s housing supply, others may point to the increasing gulf between rising house prices and stagnating wages, hindered by further inflationary pressure, which could negate the impact of such reforms.
The new Tory Coalition
Redwood has highlighted previously the governing challenge for the Government of the New Tory Coalition – which combines traditionally Conservative southern seats with new supporters in the Midlands and the North. Each set of supporters has different interests and priorities and the challenge for the Prime Minister and Michael Gove is to bring them together. By dropping the more controversial elements of the Planning Bill, and so decoupling the levelling up agenda from housing, Gove is removing the main source of contention. However, the recent scrapping of the eastern leg of HS2 is a reminder that more fiscally conservative Tories, like Rishi Sunak, also have a voice and plenty of support in the Party and that there must be limits to the Prime Minister’ spending on his new supporters in the former Red Wall.
The regeneration and development industries in the ‘front line’
So, the Government, inevitably, finds itself forced into the kind of compromises required by being in power – far removed from the exciting promises that Boris Johnson has made. Gove is organising the network of Conservative politicians and activists across the country to provide them with focus. Local leadership, good design and ‘pride of place’ are now at the heart of the levelling up agenda – and local Conservative politicians will be looking for partners, including the regeneration and development industries, to help them deliver.