Northern leaders want 'unhelpful' levelling up phrase ditched for new term

Northern leaders believe ‘levelling up' has become an unhelpful term due to unfulfilled promises – with a major new report suggesting it should be renamed 'regional rebalancing'.

Research by Atkins Consultancy and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership with Durham University found the term, which was popularised by Boris Johnson, is now viewed as having negative perceptions - but the principle of tackling regional inequalities remains widely supported.

The findings are based on 18 direct interviews with senior leaders in the North, as well as more than 100 responses from regional decision-makers to an online survey.

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The report states: “Levelling Up is not well perceived and is unhelpful as a term.

With the phrase 'levelling up' strongly associated with Boris Johnson, there are calls for the policy idea to be renamed.With the phrase 'levelling up' strongly associated with Boris Johnson, there are calls for the policy idea to be renamed.
With the phrase 'levelling up' strongly associated with Boris Johnson, there are calls for the policy idea to be renamed.

"Many believe it has lost meaning – with promises unfulfilled and the policy itself too vague and undefined.

"The principle, however, commands wide support. Interviewees commented on some positives regarding the term – for example, it is politically useful as it sounds fair and does not suggest money will be taken from other areas – but this did not outweigh the overall negativity towards the policy.”

It adds: “‘Regional rebalancing’ was generally viewed more positively – it is seen as broader than simply infrastructure projects and can apply to the rebalancing of towns and cities as well as North and South.”

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The report found widespread pessimism about the future of the levelling up agenda – with only 24 per cent confident of progress in the next five years. Of those interviewed, 96 per cent said a lack of a joined-up approach from central government was standing in the way of levelling up.

One unnamed leader from Liverpool is quoted in the report saying they “loathe” the phrase levelling up and describing it as “a fantastic marketing term that has no basis in reality”. The report also found the term ‘Northern Powerhouse’, originally coined by George Osborne under the coalition Government, is viewed more favourably than levelling up.

Among the others quoted in the report is Leeds Council leader James Lewis, who highlighted the “appalling” railway line between his city and Sheffield as one of the issues holding the local economy back.

Richard Robinson, Atkins UK and Europe CEO, said: “While the research reveals that appetite for the term ‘levelling up’ itself has waned, it also shows that the importance of the principle behind it has not.

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"Understanding the challenges and issues facing leaders in the North is, in the current climate, arguably more important and relevant than ever.”

Kieran Fernandes from Durham University Business School, said: “Regional rebalancing has been a long-held aspiration of consecutive UK governments and a long-held need for the North of England. The research, which has been inspired by the government’s recent Levelling-Up agenda, is timely, informative, and impactful.

“It is timely because it comes at a moment where there is increased attention to the inequalities between the economies and living standards of the North and the South. It is informative because it illustrates where these differences lie and what the region’s key decision makers think about them. Finally, it is impactful because it provides clear and unequivocal evidence of the urgent need for investment in the region’s physical and digital infrastructure as a medium for bridging inequalities and enhancing economic and social progress.”

Henri Murison, Chief Executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “As we look forward to the future, listening to the opinions of the leadership of local government in the North is a valuable reminder that the Northern Powerhouse is still relevant to them - just as it is to northern business leaders. In fact, those who lead our places in the Tees Valley, through West Yorkshire to Liverpool City Region and up the M6 felt more favourably in embracing it than the term ‘levelling up’.”