Boris Johnson’s 2019 general election ‘levelling up’ agenda has become even more meaningful in light of the global pandemic of the Covid-19 outbreak. Wretchedly, the devastating effect that the infectious virus has had on the UK, and indeed on the global, economy and health of many nations, means that the ‘levelling up’ agenda might need to, in the short term, become the ‘levelling back up’ agenda.
However, once this virus has been defeated (and with us all following government guidance it will be defeated) the ‘levelling up’ agenda will continue as it was before the outbreak. Notably, the 2019 election threw up some significant and surprising victories for the Conservatives. Seats such as Bishop Auckland, Bassetlaw and Sedgefield turned blue at the snap election. Boris Johnson understood that this was a historic moment but one that may not last. He commented that voters in those seats had only “lent” their votes to the Conservatives and not changed their complete political outlook. Key to the election ‘levelling up’ mantra, was injecting funds, prosperity and community back into the North of England and into the Midlands. High Streets would see funding and assistance come their way as Boris saw the dying high streets across the country as relatable conduits for local communities to see his ‘levelling up’ agenda.
But Brexit was also at the forefront of the 2019 election campaign; Boris’s ‘Let’s Get Brexit Done’ slogan a winning one with voters. However, a key piece of the Brexit puzzle for local communities across the country was funding and where this would come from in a post-transition period UK. The Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto promised the £500 million UK Shared Prosperity Fund would be used to “give disadvantaged people the skills they need to make a success of life” as a replacement for the EU Structural Funds but there was also quick decisions to green light HS2, reverse the ‘Beeching cuts’ and other symbolic gestures such as moving parts of HM Treasury up north that were made in the first few months of the new government.
However, when taken together, there’s swathes of funding that will be being made available, not just the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, significant infrastructure projects and a Prime Minister who realises the need to invest in those northern constituencies that “lent” him their votes at the general election. So what does this spell for communities across the South of England?
Unfortunately, unless southern areas of the country can ensure they receive their fair share that funding, there’s a real risk that the South of England will miss out. This means the great work being done to boost employment, improve transport infrastructure and regenerate town centres that are in desperate need across the South of England will become that much harder.
Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) are a fantastic link between local authorities and private sector local businesses and SMEs and have the skills and the expertise to channel funding to the most in need communities and areas they manage. The LEPs in the south of the country stand to lose out on funding needed to continue improving and regenerating areas that aren’t London and haven’t seen the prosperity increase that the capital has gained from but are geographically in a place not at the forefront of the Prime Minister or his Cabinet’s minds.
The South of England has a chance to continue to improve whilst the North and the Midlands are ‘levelled up’, but unless the south keeps its fair share of funding by ensuring LEPs across the south are telling their story and making examples of their great work, the south could be left behind while the rest of the country benefits.