A meaningful Levelling Up strategy needs to address the real issues affecting local communities

This week the government announced the second round of awards in its flagship Levelling Up Fund project. More than 100 projects have been given a share of £2.1 billion in the latest attempt to “create jobs and boost the economy”. £672 million has been allocated to develop better transport links, £821 million to kick-start community regeneration and £594 million to restore local heritage sites.

The government has said that: “This will drive forward the Prime Minister’s priority to grow the economy by levelling up and provide the foundations for building a better future in communities across the UK.”

Immediately after the announcement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made the rather questionable decision to take to a private executive jet for a whistlestop tour of the northern sites that will benefit from the project.

“Through greater investment in local areas, we can grow the economy, create good jobs and spread opportunity everywhere,” said Mr Sunak.

“By reaching even more parts of the country than before, we will build a future of optimism and pride in people’s lives and the places they call home.”

Given that a whole lot of money has been spent here, one really ought to try and show some positivity for what the government is trying to achieve. On the face of it, taking run-down locations and infrastructures and trying to improve them in the hope of job creation and local pride is both honourable, and fairly sensible. If one looks at the great industrial cities of Britain, you’ll see that the hardware of factories, docks and chimneys was always counterpointed by gestures of civic improvement – concert halls, art galleries, libraries and even ‘garden city’ housing developments. It didn’t take a lot for the wealthy to realise that creating a pleasant community ensured a productive and co-operative workforce.

But times have changed, and more than somewhat. In this new, post-pandemic world there are new priorities of citizenship, and thankfully most of them are pretty commendable. A large section of the workforce has gone off the radar completely – deciding undoubtedly that home, family and a minimal income is preferable to the long, costly and meaningless commute. And new urgencies such as the environment and global warming, poverty and exclusion, food and warmth are driving citizens to see their communities and life expectations in a radically different light.

Even before the PM’s jet had reached Blackpool, the criticisms of the latest round of Levelling Up were stacking up. In a rather obvious contradiction of the intention, the south-east will actually get more cash than the north, with London boroughs receiving more than both Yorkshire and the North East combined.

So, our railway system is largely rubbish but in times past anyone with a modicum of political common sense would endure the journey (second class of course) for the sake of showing some kind of solidarity with the people. And whatever the delusion that London is somehow still the beating heart of the UK, you’d make very sure that Levelling Up awards were tipped towards the north – not just because that’s the whole point of the scheme – but because it would make for political sense, and an avoidance of the kind of headlines we’ve seen this week.

But this is a new political world also. We didn’t learn thanks to some erudite paparazzi photographer that actually Mr Sunak didn’t get the 8.30am to Blackpool. What we got was a heavily posed image of him skipping aboard an £80m French-built Dassault Falcon 900 branded with the Royal Seal and RAF logo. The resulting PR shot was no street grab, but a carefully lit and posed PR image that would have graced the cover of any high class corporate brochure.

A First Class train ticket from London Euston to Blackpool would have cost Mr Sunak £257, or just £73.40 if he really wanted to look like the rest of us, but taking the Dassault Falcon for the second time in two weeks (he visited Leeds in it last week) at our expense was defended by Mr Sunak quite unashamedly as “the best use of my time”.

We all know that Mr Sunak is very important, but – as I’ve argued before – what’s emerging here is a very dangerous shade of meritocracy, and behind it some very warped and deluded ideas about the public zeitgeist and, more fundamentally, about the means to revive the British economy. For someone of Mr Sunak’s unimaginable personal wealth, it’s probably fairly easy to make the mistake of thinking that everyone’s going to be impressed by the trappings of a lavish lifestyle, indeed he undoubtedly feels that people will only listen to you talking about better times ahead if he’s evidencing that by his own actions. After all, how can you promise people a better life, unless you’ve proven yourself that it’s more than possible?

And here’s the contradiction, and the great sadness of modern life – there’s a genuine danger that Mr Sunak may be right. One only has to cast a glance across social media, tv-programming and social chit-chat to see that a significant percentage of the population actually aspires to untold and irrational riches – an extension of the National Lottery mentality (also a clever invention of government), that just around the corner and a £2 ticket away is a yellow brick road to instant and untold riches. And if people are lusting after £10k sports trainers, designer clothes and exotic holidays, who can blame Mr Sunak for thinking everyone wants to be like him?

Going back to Levelling Up, the government seems convinced that the projects announced this week will help push the public into the mindset of meritocracy. The Levelling Up initiative was born out of the Conservative’s 2019 election victory, in which many northern Labour constituencies – the famous “Red Wall’ – changed sides. It was felt at the time that the needs (or, rather the votes) of these newly-evangelised communities could not held unless their economic disparity was addressed. Looking to my own locality, it’s hard to see how a rambling – and inevitably very steep – cycle path from Llandudno to Betws-y-Coed is going to transform the economic woes of north Wales – though I for one will enjoy belting down the 20-mile freewheeling return!

The infrastructure projects being proposed across the UK are very pleasant, and there’s even some prospect of improving transportation links and public health in a few places. Most will create a decent number of new jobs in their locality, but there’s a depressing emphasis on projects related to tourism. Whilst there’s an argument to say that tourists boost local economies and create local jobs, there’s also a danger that they can create exclusion, a sense of division. After all, tourism is about attracting people with disposable wealth into your locality, with your benefit being largely incidental and transient. In regions such as the West country, and even here in north Wales, an undue reliance on tourism can actually drive property prices and living standards beyond the reach of locals, making economic and social problems even worse.

More fundamentally, Levelling Up is a pretty useless strategy is unless you’re serious about addressing the reasons why certainly localities fell behind economically in the first place, and this is a complex and variable conundrum. But one thing is for sure, there’s little point in building eco-domes or cycle paths unless you have a very clear idea what’s up with a community in the first place. Browsing through the list of awards in this latest round of Levelling Up, there’s a worrying drift towards externalising communities – making them attractive to outsiders – rather than addressing fundamental and urgent local problems – like housing, welfare and lack of amenities and facilities.

In better times we can happily indulge ourselves building new art galleries, tourist attractions and leisure facilities, but right now we are in the depths of a very real cost of living crisis – a recession in very real danger of tipping into a depression. We have critical problems with our health service, our schools system, the food chain, welfare provision and the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor. All of that is urgent beyond imagining, and isn’t going to be ameliorated by a few lorry-loads of tarmac.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian