Can devolution trailblaze the way to levelling up? 

Levelling up is vying to be the political punching bag of the post-Brexit era. Whilst it is dismissed by some on the right as a nebulous concept that evades the very people it was designed to impress; it is accused by many on the left of being a free-market conspiracy dressed in the language of state intervention. Beyond a vague promise to ‘spread opportunity’ outside of London, you would not be alone in asking, ‘what does levelling up really mean?’   

So far, the job of convincing levelling up sceptics has fallen to Michael Gove. But Gove’s first intervention as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing produced not a bang, nor even a whimper, but a white paper that appeared to have copied and pasted chunks of text from Wikipedia entries on ancient cities. The media revelled and the sceptics’ cause hardened.  

The recent announcement of ‘trailblazer’ devolution deals, however, signed with Birmingham and Greater Manchester respectively, have proven Gove hid some diamonds in the rough of the white paper. In fact, one of the deals has won him an unlikely convert. Sitting down with the Centre for Cities to discuss Greater Manchester’s trailblazer last month, Mayor Andy Burnham couldn’t stop the heaping the praise onto Gove: ‘80-90% of the things we asked for we got… he deserves the praise’. 

Combing through the details of the trailblazer, it’s clear Burnham has reasons to be cheerful, having gained more control over skills, transport and housing policy. This is exciting. Rather than following Whitehall’s general directives on skills, for example, local government can now direct the future workforce’s training according to the needs of Manchester’s labour market. Also, with greater control over the levers of transport policy, Manchester is closer to achieving one of Burnham’s flagship proposals: the Bee Network. If delivered by 2030, the Network would bring Manchester’s transport system closer to London’s, integrating bus, metro, rail, and cycle across the city region. With whatever’s left of HS2 getting delayed and scaled back further, ring fencing local policies from the Treasury through devolution can only be a step in the right direction for levelling up.  

The relationship between Greater Manchester and the Treasury has shifted even further than this, with the trailblazer also reforming how the former receives its funding from the latter. Now, with Manchester being given a ‘single settlement’, the bidding system between mayors and the Treasury, once dismissed by West Midlands Mayor Andy Street as a ‘begging bowl’, has been scrapped. The settlement, to be negotiated with the Treasury and announced at the budget, elevates Greater Manchester to the position of de facto government department. But is this a seat at the table? 

Everywhere you look, levelling up is being watered down. Only last month it was reported that over 90% of the Levelling Up Fund, one of the many funds set to constitute Manchester’s single settlement, is waiting to be spent. If government departments can suffer spending cuts at the hands of the Chancellor, why can’t Greater Manchester? History tells us that without a fiscally strong local government, dashes for growth often become self-defeating; the Northern Powerhouse’s creation of jobs and GDP alongside child poverty speaks for itself. 

By claiming he is putting ‘place before politics,’ Burnham is eluding this awkward reality. But his discretion comes from a place of relief that levelling up has finally broken the UK’s devolution deadlock, rather than a lack of ambition. ‘It’s the beginning of devolution proper’ he announced to the Centre for Cities event. And if this is the beginning, exciting policy developments across housing, transport and education make for a positive start. Whether the trailblazers can deliver levelling up, though, is another question, especially when a frugal Treasury still holds places like Manchester by the purse strings. 

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