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Five priorities for levelling up: An open letter to The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP

Our Chief Executive Nick Bowes writes to the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities with five priorities for levelling up.

Dear Secretary of State,

Many congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State at the newly titled Department for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing.

London must be included in levelling up

I recognise what a huge issue levelling up is for this government, and getting this right is crucial, including for London. Contrary to what some might think, it is not in London’s interests for there to be such contrasts in quality of life and standards of living between different parts of the UK. We have already seen how this has led to a growing sense of resentment towards the capital, placing a strain on the social ties that hold the country together. An imbalanced UK is also highly inefficient as resources and talents in some parts of the country are underutilised, while too much strain is placed on infrastructure in other places.

Levelling up also matters within London. Despite a perception that the city is only home to the wealthy, it suffers from some of the worst deprivation and inequality in the country. At the moment, the conversation about levelling up seems to sideline the scale of the levelling up challenges within London and risks leaving hundreds of thousands of people without the support they need. If unaddressed this will put further strain on the public purse.

I’m sure you will be receiving lots of friendly advice in your first few weeks. In that spirit, I would urge you to focus on five specific aspects of levelling up.

Five priorities for levelling up

First, be clear about what the government means by levelling up. As part of this, I would strongly urge you to be transparent about the criteria you are using and the metrics of success. You should also make sure that people, as well as places, are at the heart of your thinking. Place clearly does matter, but ultimately it is people that need support, wherever they live.

Second, rebalancing the economy cannot be achieved through decisions taken by Whitehall. The levelling up agenda needs to be matched by a comprehensive programme of devolution that includes meaningful fiscal freedoms. The bidding process for pots of money allocated by central government is not only hugely inefficient, but the rules stifle any prospect of tailoring programmes and initiatives to the unique circumstances of local places.

Third, try not to oversimplify what is a complex problem. Generalising the North as poor and the South as rich ignores that there are pockets of real affluence in the North and deep poverty in the South. Poverty and deprivation found in London may manifest in a different way to that seen in former industrial areas or coastal towns, but that doesn’t mean it is any less important. It is also important not to dismiss poverty in London just because it sits cheek by jowl with symbols of affluence like the city’s gleaming skyline of skyscrapers – the barriers faced by many in accessing economic opportunities in London are as large, if not larger, than elsewhere.

Fourth, in the rush to level up, please do not make the mistake of levelling down London. I know and I understand some of the resentment directed at London and how vocal the demands will be on you to switch investment and focus away from London and the wider South East to other parts of the country. This is particularly crucial given how hard London has been hit by the pandemic and that its recovery has been slower than elsewhere. This is poorly understood outside of the city, but now is not the time to weaken support for it.

Fifth, restoring pride in the capital should be a priority. Recent years has strained relations between London and the rest of the UK, with a sense that people living elsewhere have become less proud of the capital. London’s leaders have an important role to play in boosting pride, but so do national politicians. It is a hard task to sell to the rest of the country the positives that London’s success brings to the UK, but it is true. If London were to falter, we would all be poorer – the Treasury’s tax take, critical at the best of times – more so in current circumstances, would be under threat, leaving less for governments to spend on public services and levelling up.

Global Britain depends on a successful London

Our place in the world and the projection of soft power across the globe – something I know is of real importance to the government’s Global Britain agenda – is highly dependent on a successful London. But this cannot be taken for granted. It needs nurturing, attention and investment, as well as the recognition that a successful global city like London is an amazing asset for the UK and we would be foolish if we didn’t do everything we can to protect it.

I suspect you understand much of this, given your links to London and your constituency being in the wider economic orbit of the city. I know how tricky the politics are, but I hope you agree that London’s success should transcend this.

We are planning some work of our own in this area and I intend for it to be helpful to you and to other decision makers, rather than a divisive contribution to the debate that pits London against the rest of the country. We stand ready to support you and your officials and we would be happy to convene a group of London voices and experts if you would find it helpful.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Bowes

Nick Bowes is Chief Executive of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.