Have the Tories given up on levelling up?

Civic pride is important—but neither leadership candidate has a serious solution for tackling regional inequality

August 04, 2022
Photo: Donna Gibbs / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Donna Gibbs / Alamy Stock Photo

Has the Conservative Party given up on levelling up? Both of the remaining leadership candidates insist that this is not the case, but the lack of any real focus on the challenges posed by regional inequality suggests otherwise.

Ex-Treasury minister Jim O’Neill said this week that “unless the government focuses seriously on the mammoth regional inequalities in England, it will receive little respect from the disgruntled regions.” Meanwhile, polling by the thinktanks Public First and Onward reveals that levelling up is the number one policy priority for Conservative Party supporters—more important even than Brexit. Pivoting away from the gimmicks that have characterised the current leadership campaign and returning to the levelling up agenda will be one of the biggest challenges facing whoever becomes the next prime minister.

If levelling up does slip down their priority list, the next question will be whether the framework set out in the levelling up white paper, and the “missions” included in it, will also quietly fade away in the next government.

One of the most striking parts of this framework was the commitment in the white paper to restore “pride in place” in our left-behind towns and cities—the sort of target designed to signal a broader approach to economic growth than that associated with the orthodoxies of the Treasury and the narrow focus on tax cuts which has dominated the leadership race.

But what exactly is “pride” in this context? Is it really an ambition that government should pursue? How do we know it needs restoring? Or is it a distraction from the enormous economic challenges facing the country at this moment? 

In our new report, published at Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute, we explore these issues by analysing the existing academic literature and polling data. We found that the implicit assumption held by the government that pride in poorer places is weakest is not entirely accurate. The “geography of pride” is more complicated, with some poorer regions like the northeast of England reporting higher rates of “belonging” than their wealthier counterparts. Levels of pride do not correlate neatly with the relative economic position of places.

We also found that a range of different factors and policy levers can affect people’s feelings about the place in which they live. The white paper points to improving high streets, tackling anti-social behaviour and boosting levels of homeownership. These are all potentially useful levers. But given the range of issues and institutions that shape our sense of what is valuable, a broader appreciation of the kinds of policies that can make a difference is needed.

There is no silver bullet, or optimal level of funding, that can be guaranteed to boost civic pride. High street regeneration is unlikely to make people feel positive about where they live if it’s surrounded by an unsafe park, boarded up pubs on the outskirts of town and a poor transport system. 

What people value most about where they live is the quality of, and access to, amenities and facilities within it. And what makes them feel more pessimistic and disenchanted is the perception that these are in decline, and that nobody in authority cares. Figuring out ways of addressing this chronic sense of disempowerment needs to be a priority for any government committed to tackling the scourge of geographical inequality. 

Our findings suggest that heritage assets, sports clubs, pubs, green spaces and cultural amenities are essential to restoring the social fabric of poorer places. Celebrating the history of local places and giving residents a say over the changes that affect them can also be valuable. 

Improving the built environment is not going to turn around the economic fortunes of left-behind places on its own. But we should view interventions of this kind as integral to the growth agenda, not as a rival to it. In order to boost pride we need to improve the quality and quantity of the amenities that we all like to have—some of which we’ve outlined. These present opportunities to socialise, which builds a sense of community and fosters relationships and knowledge sharing—all necessary ingredients for economic growth. Moreover, when people feel more connected to where they live, they are more likely to invest in it. Local residents who took ownership of a derelict site in Sheffield turned it into the largest community-run park in the UK, Heeley People’s Park, and it was entirely funded by local contributions. 

For these reasons, government should set out a “minimum standard guarantee” for communities, detailing the basic set of amenities which people should be able to access.

Our report concludes that the £150m Community Ownership Fund should be significantly increased to £1bn to match the scale of the challenges facing left-behind areas. The equivalent fund in the US, the Community Revitalisation Fund, sits at $10bn.

The white paper has its faults. But in identifying the promotion of civic pride as a goal that policymakers should take more seriously, it marks an important departure from the policy orthodoxies of previous decades. Whoever wins the leadership contest should think hard about the ways geographical inequalities inhibit the UK’s growth prospects and accentuate its deepening divides.