‘Naked, bare, nothing meaningful’: Northern leaders hit out at Boris Johnson’s levelling up speech

Prime minister accused of having no ideas after speech that was supposed to reset flagship policy – but ended with him asking public to email suggestions

Colin Drury
South Yorkshire
Thursday 15 July 2021 19:52
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<p> The PM suggested the public could email him suggestions for how levelling up could proceed</p>

The PM suggested the public could email him suggestions for how levelling up could proceed

Northern politicians and leaders have expressed astonishment after Boris Johnson admitted he only had a “skeleton” plan to turn his so-called levelling up agenda into reality – despite almost two years in power.

The prime minister delivered a keynote speech on Thursday in which he vowed his much-touted policy would “raise living standards, spread opportunity, improve our public services and restore people's sense of pride in their community".

But he singularly failed to offer any detail on how he would deliver, causing dismay and bewilderment in the very regions the government has repeatedly said it wants to help.

“He's not looking after our areas, he's saying soundbites,” said Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader and MP for Ashton-under-Lyne, who added in a series of tweets: “Levelling up; is just a press release. Just like the Northern Powerhouse that has never happened.

“The only people being "levelled up" are Tory donors getting £££ contracts.”

Referring to a moment when the prime minister suggested the public could email him suggestions for how they would like to see levelling up proceed, she appeared flabbergasted.

“Boris Johnson – the actual Prime Minister – in a speech that was supposed to set out his policies to address regional inequality, asked the public to email him with ideas,” she said.

Dan Jarvis, the mayor of south Yorkshire and MP for Barnsley Central, added: “If the PM wants to get serious about levelling up… this would be a good place to start: concrete goals; genuinely new, transformative investment; and real collaboration with local leaders.”

The speech – given at a UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry – was supposed to constitute a reset on the flagship policy which, up to now, has appeared to offer no real substance beyond handing out capital grants for high street improvements, minor transport upgrades and renovations of leisure facilities.

In particular Mr Johnson pushed the idea that more power should be extended to local leaders to drive change.

But observers were left bemused at the sheer lack of detail or new announcements – save for the revelation that £50 million is to be invested in community football pitches.

Commentators suggested that the prime minister himself appeared not to have an idea of what levelling up was supposed to actually mean.

“The PM said his speech on levelling up was a skeleton’,” said Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central and shadow secretary of state for housing. “It’s certainly naked and bare. Nothing meaningful in what he said, and he seems to not get that in order to level up it requires a strategic set of interventions into actual places, not jam for all.”

Nor was it only politicians who appeared unsatisfied by the lack of detail.

And Erica Roscoe, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) North, said that, while local leadership empowerment would help boost local economies, it had to be supported by government funding and support.

“The evidence is clear – levelling up can only be achieved if places are empowered to level up for themselves,” she said. “From better living standards, to better work, health and a better democracy – leaders across England are beginning to show the difference that devolution can make, but limits to their powers and competition for short term funding initiatives mean they cannot realise their communities’ full potential.

“We need a fair, transparent settlement in which power is shared between places and government – not piecemeal projects where government continues to hold all of the strings because that isn’t real, progressive devolution. The prime minister must let go to level up.”

Even Conservative MPs appeared lost for words by the speech. Many of the 2019 intake of northern and Midlands Tories – usually highly vocal on social media – had not posted reactions by late afternoon. Those that did chose not to get bogged down in any detail.

“Fantastic speech,” wrote Nicola Richards, MP for West Bromwich East. “PM made it clear he wants to go further. There’s lots more work to be done.”

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