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An inflatable balloon in the shape of Boris Johnson hovering on a street in Hartlepool.

What actually is ‘levelling up’? What we know about Boris Johnson’s agenda – and what we don’t

The promise to “level up and unite the country” has been a central message since the current UK government came to power in 2019. During the election of that year, the slogan was the counterpart to the promise to “get Brexit done”, providing one of history’s simplest plans for government. Step 1: get Brexit done. Step 2: level up.

With Brexit officially “done”, the government turned its attention to step 2. Although this agenda has been somewhat slowed by the pandemic, the phrase “levelling up” has steadily proliferated across Whitehall, and this autumn we are to expect a landmark “levelling up white paper”.

Ahead of that publication, MPs published a report concluding that the concept “has yet to be defined”, adding to widespread narrative that levelling up is an empty political slogan. But we do know some things about it.

It’s place-based

To level up is to reduce inequality between places while improving outcomes in all places. The UK has a long history of inequality between places. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently explained, the UK “has a more unbalanced economy … than pretty much every major developed country”.

The government has published a plan for growth, in which it specifically states that “levelling up means tackling these disparities”. At the same time, Johnson has insisted that “[we can’t] make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer”. Therefore, although levelling up is first and foremost about reducing inequality between places (“levelling”), it seeks to do this while improving outcomes in all places (“levelling up”).

The focus on places is emphasised in the government’s rhetoric about “restoring people’s sense of pride in their community”. The aim is to “enable more people to get on in life, without feeling they have to leave their local area”.

It’s multi-level

If levelling up is about reducing inequality between places, what counts as a place? This is where levelling up starts to become really tricky to define. It seems clear that even the government has not yet decided where the boundaries are drawn.

It might be presumed that levelling up refers to inequality between officially delineated areas. Data is collected by dividing the UK into its four nations – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – and England is again divided into nine separate regions. And we do know that there is inequality between these areas.

However, Johnson has implied that the levelling-up agenda does not map onto these official areas. He has argued that “the UK will never fit into some cookie cutter division into regions named after points of the compass”.

A man walking past a pawn shop in Cumbria on a rainy day.
The inequality map of the UK may look different to what we expect. Alamy

The widespread rhetoric on “core cities”, “struggling towns” and “left-behind communities” shows a concern with inequality at the sub-regional level.

It’s not just about the economy

If levelling up is about reducing inequality between places, it is perhaps helpful to think about how inequality itself is measured. The government has tended to focus on “productivity” as the baseline measure of regional inequality in the UK.

Productivity is the value of the work done in a region. It is measured by taking a region’s total income over a year and dividing it by the total number of hours worked. This indicates the contribution that each region is making to the UK economy. Regions with low productivity do not necessarily have less efficient workers, but workers are performing roles that generate less income.

The government’s plan for growth aims to improve productivity with three pillars of economic growth: infrastructure, skills, and innovation. As a result, this focus on productivity soon becomes a concern with quality of life in local places. Creaking infrastructure means long daily commutes, low skills mean a lack of career opportunities, and slow innovation means polluting and failing businesses.

More recently, levelling up has grown even wider in its scope. This is because the government doesn’t want its flagship agenda to be just about an abstract economic measure – it needs to represent more tangible and communicable changes to living standards. So there is a new focus on health measures like obesity and life-expectancy, on education measures like degree-attainment and per-pupil school funding – and on local crime statistics. There are also hints that unemployment and housing statistics could become part of the mix.

So while levelling up is often framed in terms of economic measures like “productivity”, the government knows that it needs to make people feel like their lives have improved. This means visible and noticeable changes in deprived neighbourhoods. It means better schools, better hospitals and better housing. It means not just improving local economies, but ensuring that this prosperity is shared by all.

What we don’t know

We know that levelling up seeks to tackle place-based inequality and strengthen place-based identity. But we don’t know whether places will be given more powers and resources themselves, or whether levelling up will be delivered from the centre. Research suggests that delivery from the centre has little chance of success.

We know that levelling up is about improving outcomes in certain regions and sub-regional areas. But, because there are so many ways of dividing up the map of the UK, we don’t know where these “left-behind” places actually are. This is partly another problem of measurement, but also one of targeting – which places will see the biggest benefits. This opens the door for more accusations of “pork barrel politics”, where the government invests in its own constituencies purely for electoral gain.

Finally, we don’t know exactly how levelling up will be measured. MPs want metrics to be established to track progress. If the government avoids doing so, this could be a strong indication that it will seek to declare levelling up a success using whichever measures turn out to be favourable.

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