Why ‘levelling up’ mission must have real purpose – Robert Halfon

IF “you’re on mute” has become everyone’s favourite catchphrase of the past year, “levelling up” is the equivalent for politicians. Despite its commonality, very few know what these two words actually mean.

When I asked my constituents, one suggested it was about mending potholes and another thought it had something to do with a Super Mario game. We may think we understand it, but the phrase has little relevance for the person on the Yorkshire omnibus.

Before making grand announcements, the Government must first define clearly what “levelling up” means. Is it about social justice? Social mobility – the ladder of opportunity? Is it to do with building better transport links? New hospitals and schools? Or is the focus cutting the cost of living? Perhaps, it is all these things?

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The Prime Minister needs to establish a narrative around “levelling up”, otherwise the Government’s policies will simply be a series of initiatives that might capture a few newspaper headlines but won’t change the fundamentals.

Affordable housing is one of the building blocks of the 'levelling up' agenda, says Robert Halfon MP.

In short, “levelling up” must not be a whole load of clothes pegs without a washing line.

One thing we can know for certain is that Covid-19 has been the great “leveller down”. The pandemic has cast a spotlight on existing injustices and, in many cases, accelerated social problems, especially in housing, education and living costs. These are the areas on which the Government must focus if to “level up” is really to mean something.

First, housing. As this pandemic has served to highlight, there is nothing more important than “the home”. It is a place of stability and security without which people are set on the road to hardship.

Two in five of the population have less than £100 in savings. Whilst I agree with the aspirational focus of the Right/Help to Buy proposals, the idea that everyone can just cough up a deposit, even with the Government’s shared equity schemes, is impossible for many.

Boris Johnson is being challenged to definie the Government's 'levelling up' agenda.

In the UK, the fifth biggest economy in the world, 829,000 households are living in overcrowded conditions. Levelling up mustn’t just be about building more houses, but ensuring more genuinely affordable homes. That starts with enabling and financially incentivising housing associations to develop more social housing.

Housing Associations are building a lot of shared ownership because that’s what policy is pushing them towards. Even without any extra investment, we could change this by simple measures like increasing the flexibility provided around grant rates.

Second, on education – whilst standards have gone up, it’s deeply concerning that the levels of attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers are likely to have worsened by as much as 75 per cent.

Moreover, white, free school meal-eligible pupils are the largest ethnic disadvantaged group failing to reach national school benchmarks at age 16.

Robert Halfon is a Conservative MP and chair of Parliament’s cross-party Education Select Committee.

Levelling up in education means a national long-term plan. Just as the NHS has its 10-year plan, so too should schools, colleges and universities, so that teachers, support staff, pupils and their parents can prepare.

The Education Secretary must look at reform of the Pupil Premium, establishing teaching degree-apprenticeships as a route into the profession, extending the catch-up fund and guaranteeing the Holiday Activities and Food programme, which should include academic, as well as sports and wellbeing, activities for every school holiday.

The £90.1m spent on Opportunity Areas perhaps could be spent instead on recruiting high-quality teachers and leadership teams in areas of disadvantage, as we know that it is always strong leadership that transforms the chances of left-behind children.

It isn’t just pupils, it’s also the life chances of adults. As our Education Select Committee’s new report into adult skills and lifelong learning recommends, we need a community learning centre in every town, a skills tax credit to incentivise and revitalise employer-led training and individual learning accounts, allowing people to hop on and off learning opportunities to fit around life.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of poverty or prosperity is the cost of living. Year on year, we see increases in our council tax, the police precept, utility bills. We know that one in seven people at food banks are in employment, or live with someone who is.

In part, the Government has recognised this and frozen fuel duty (saving motorists a cumulative £1,200 since 2010), increased and extended the National Living Wage and raised the personal tax allowance, meaning that an employee working full-time on the NLW will be over £5,200 better off compared to April 2010.

To go further, the £20 uplift to Universal Credit we saw during the pandemic should be maintained, if we really want to help people get out of the poverty trap.

As a Conservative, I believe the best way to support families and workers struggling with the cost of living is through the tax system. Cutting business taxes also generates extra Government revenue because businesses can invest in capital and employ more workers.

However, the Treasury should also establish a Special Redistribution Fund, using the tax income raised from business to cut taxes substantially for those on lower incomes or spend on poorer communities. Information about how the Special Redistribution Fund is being spent should be readily available on the Treasury website.

If we get one thing right in 2021, let’s make sure “levelling up” isn’t just a soundbite but has real purpose. That way, when people hear politicians spout the phrase, “levelling up”, they won’t reach for the mute button.

* Robert Halfon is a Conservative MP and chair of Parliament’s cross-party Education Select Committee.

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