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Why levelling up is a Sunak fantasy

 (ES Composte)
(ES Composte)

THERE was something stomach-churning about seeing Rishi Sunak on his Northern tour, making his “levelling up” funding announcements.

It carried a Baron Bountiful distributing bags of gold aspect, the great benefactor greeted rapturously, handing out his loot, then off again. It felt patronising and yes, nauseating.

That’s not to say the gift wasn’t welcome. Of course, it was, in the same way a beggar is grateful for a few quid. But it doesn’t solve their plight.

Tarting up a depressed town centre is not the solution, it’s not levelling up.

Teaching relevant skills, boosting transport links, building smart social housing, creating inspiring school buildings and ensuring smaller class sizes, adding NHS facilities and providing health education — now we’re getting somewhere.

Listening and watching the Prime Minister as he bounded around, you could be forgiven for supposing the North was on track, that the North-South divide is destined soon to be consigned to the past. What rubbish. The fact is that if the North of England were an OECD country it would be second to bottom in a league table of private and public investment. Only Greece would fare worse, according to the study from IPPR North.

Sunak is tinkering at the margins, playing to the gallery, avoiding reality. True levelling up would take many years — a vital factor if you’re intent on winning the next election and you’re seeking photo opportunities and counting on votes. Building a railway line or supplying people with the digital know-how so they can hold down globally competitive tech jobs, say, doesn’t make for instant good news and a picture, with smiles all round, as compared with handing over a cheque. Sunak isn’t stupid, he realises the country’s economic and social weaknesses go much deeper and wider. He’s stuck, though. The promise of “levelling up” was used by Boris Johnson to deliveri an unexpected thumping electoral majority, much of it down to hitherto Labour parts of the North being suitably impressed and turning Tory.

No matter that nobody knew what it meant, including Boris Johnson. It was seen as a sea-change in policy and swung them behind the Conservatives.

The Prime Minister and his party cannot go back on that now. So, on Sunak goes, while all the time for every place that is named a lucky winner there are losers, all of them deserving, not just in the North but all over Britain, and the yawning structural cracks are not being sufficiently addressed.

Because levelling up was never properly defined, all sorts of hard done-by communities claimed it for themselves. Every good cause under the sun wanted a slice. Johnson’s vote-grabber became a national panacea. While Sunak was doing his “Hello Morecambe!” stint, the instruction was quietly going round Tories that phrases like “stepping up”, “gauging up” and “enhancing communities” should be used to explain levelling up. They want it to be seen as not just about the doling out of hard cash. That avoids heated rows as places lose out.

Critically too, the Tories know however much is awarded it will always be woefully insufficient. So far, the Government has committed a few billion to its levelling up fund. But think in terms of trillions, not billions, if it was to attempt to really level up. This week’s Convention of the North, an annual gathering of political, civic and business leaders held in Manchester, heard comparison with the “German model”. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, is one of those seized by devolving power to the regions as the Germans have done, away from Berlin.

Devolution, however, is only part of the German approach and merely one factor in the reason they’ve removed many regional inequalities. Another is money, coupled with long-term commitment.

Post-unification, the Germans devoted $3 trillion towards bringing the Eastern half up to a similar standard with the West. It took many years but they achieved their goal. Germany’s size of spending, together with their farsightedness, is not a bad yardstick for what is needed to level up Britain. Dominic Cummings knows this, which is why he calls levelling up “a rubbish slogan”.

But Sunak is having none of it, not in public anyway. Shamefully, as he darted hither and yon, Sunak persisted in saying his Government is “completely committed” to levelling up “across the UK”.

It’s insulting. He should stop where Johnson didn’t. It’s not levelling up. It never will be.

Chris Blackhurst is the author of Too Big To Jail: Inside HSBC, the Mexican drug cartels and the greatest banking scandal of the century (Macmillan)