'Naive' to think 'generational project' of levelling up will be fixed by next election

A former Government special adviser has said proving levelling up is working will be a challenge for ministers at the next election as he said it was a “generational project”.

The levelling up agenda became a key part of the Government’s 2019 election victory, and has since been a thread running through various initiatives.

It has been difficult to get an exact definition of the phrase, but it is widely accepted to mean improving life chances and opportunities in areas traditionally considered ‘left behind’, and is often used in the context of the North/South divide.

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But speaking on The Yorkshire Post’s political podcast, Pod’s Own Country this week, former special adviser Peter Cardwell said he did not feel voters yet “got” what levelling up was, and that bringing former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry back into Government could be a step in the right direction.

Boris Johnson on a visit to West Yorkshire. Photo: PA

“I think that the Government realises that the North is something which is really, really important. The Northern Powerhouse is really important, levelling up is really important,” he said.

“But that message kind of hasn't got through, and I think a lot of people don't understand what levelling up is.”

Mr Cardwell said while there were positive announcements such as funding for high streets or revelations in the Budget, “it has to be a lot more, it has to be very very tangible”.

He pointed to freeports - special economic zones with different rules to make it easier and cheaper to do business - as an example, and it was announced earlier this month that Humber would become one of the first in the UK.

But he said: “And then we have to get to a state - which is probably a generational project, actually, it's not going to happen in a few years - where living in Workington or West Yorkshire or wherever is as good and you have as many opportunities as living in London.”

He added: “It's a real risk, actually, to say your life is going to be perfect by 2024.”

And that levelling up had to be seen as a “long-term project”.

“In terms of the priorities of the 2019 election, such as Get Brexit Done, for example, that's a very tangible thing that has happened. Obviously, there are a few bumps in the road, but it's happening, the sky hasn't fallen in, and things are fine,” he said.

“The second bit of that, [to] unleash Britain's potential of which levelling up was a key element, is much more difficult to both do and communicate that it's done.

“So I think the Conservatives will be able to point to some things that are done and some improvements that are there by 2024, but it's naive to think in that short space of time that all problems can be solved, essentially, and that levelling up can happen.

“I think it's a generational project.”

Mr Cardwell worked with former Northern Powerhouse Minister, and now chairman of the powerful Northern Research Group (NRG) Jake Berry in the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government during his time in Whitehall, and he said he would not be surprised to see him back around the Cabinet table in a future reshuffle, to drive those levelling up plans.

“The power of Boris Johnson will be decided, there's almost a barometer, whether Jake is back in the Cabinet or not, and I think that there's a strong possibility he will be,” he said.

And he said the influence of the at least 50-strong NRG, which he said was likely the most powerful of these groupings of MPs, could be “either a huge boost or a huge problem for Boris Johnson”.

“If there was to be any major issue, Boris Johnson could lose his majority,” he said, although he added the NRG was not a “homogenous group”.

But he said: “It’s just interesting in terms of how these groups have emerged and specifically the NRG, which I think is the most powerful within Government, and I think if I were a reader of The Yorkshire Post sitting in Yorkshire, I’d be very, very glad that the NRG exists, because it means that people’s voices are being heard at the very highest level all the time.”