Social Justice

What should Liz Truss do in her first 100 days to make levelling up happen?

We took a look at what the new prime minister can do to keep the Conservatives' big 2019 promise: levelling up.

levelling up, Liz Truss

Liz Truss is widely expected to become the next prime minister - but what can she do to make sure levelling up doesn't flop? Image: Gareth Milner/flickr

Andrew Crook, the owner of Skippers fish shop in Euxton, used to spend £600 a week on fish. Now he’s spending £1,400. The fate of his Lancashire chippy could be the fate of levelling up – and gives a taste of what the new prime minister can do once she steps into 10 Downing Street.

Crook, who also serves as the president of the National Federation of Fish Friers, has a grim prognosis. He only has six weeks worth of cash in the bank – a situation more fortunate than others he speaks to regularly. “It’s not just fish and chips – it’s every small business, hospitality and retail, they’re just going to go,” he says.

“When it gets to January you’ll see a lot of pubs and restaurants pull the plug.”

Levelling up was the cornerstone of the Conservative party’s 2019 election-winning manifesto, which saw it win over the red wall with a promise to rebalance the regions of the UK. Think rejuvenated high streets, buoyant small businesses, and seamless transport links between regional towns.

Both candidates for prime minister said they’ll continue it. Whether Truss does or not now she’s in power, there are some easy wins to be had, and progress to be made.

We’ve spoken to experts to get a picture of where we’re at with levelling up – and the immediate policies the new prime minister could put in place. We’ve done the same for issues surrounding the cost of living crisis, the environment and housing.

Where we’re at with levelling up

Levelling up is in a precarious position, whether or not Truss decides it’s a priority.

“Levelling up’s not happening particularly and it’ll happen even less when the cost of living crisis takes off,” says former transport minister Norman Baker, who now works with the Campaign for Better Transport. 

“Whatever putative steps the government has taken will be swamped by what’s happening in the outside world.” 

Jonny Webb, of the IPPR think tank, describes levelling up as at a “crossroads”, and says the consequences are being felt now.

“The UK is going to be worse off in this current economic recession than comparable countries because its economy is less resilient. That is a simple outcome of underinvestment in the core infrastructure this country needs to make its economy work better,” he says.

So what can be done? Beyond sweeping infrastructure projects, there are quick, achievable policies a new prime minister could get under their belt.

Step up devolution

The first thing Truss could do would be to empower regional mayors, such as Andy Burnham in Manchester.

“You’ve got to devolve more power and more money to elected mayors,” Baker says.

One key area this would benefit is transport, argues IPPR’s Webb, giving them the power to bring bus franchises into public ownership.

“The government working with those mayors to achieve that would be quite a quick win,” he says. “For the millions of people represented in those combined authority areas, that would represent a better public transport which is not only more affordable but is better connected too.”

Just give councils some money

In the main, levelling up takes the form of money given to councils. Councils have recently submitted bids for the government’s landmark Levelling Up Fund, a £4.8billion pot of money. 

Leeds asked for £100million to do up its parks, transport and high streets. Nottinghamshire asked for £40million for a new link road, with walking and cycling routes. Bracknell wants £3.8m to move its library. Warrington bid for £47m for, among other things, a new sports centre.

But it’s complicated – the Levelling Up Fund is just one of a number of funds. There’s also the Towns Fund, and a vast number of funds for projects ranging from retrofit to decarbonising transport. Bidding for these eats up money for councils.

A single bid can cost around £30,000, according to research from the Local Government Association, with some councils racking up seven-figure bills each year.

“It’s often described as a beauty pageant in that essentially the most attractive proposals are given the funding,” says Webb. 

“But that’s not actually a great way to level up the country. Some places who put in better bids might receive the funding, it’s not necessarily that they’re in more need of funding than those places where the need is most acute.”

Webb’s solution for a new prime minister is to simplify things, and create a single independent body to hand out money nationally.

“It’s fairly easy to understand the places that do need levelling up, it’s not rocket science. We have that information at our fingertips,” Webb says.

Baker suggests this too, as a way to cut through bureaucracy – and to let people figure out what’s best for their own area.

“What the government should do is what I did, set up a local transport fund – you set high level objectives. I set the objectives of improving the economy and cutting carbon and said if you can do that you can have some money. 

“You need to set high level objectives like that and then if people are prepared to come forward with ideas that meet those objectives, give them some dosh.”

Cllr Kevin Bentley, chair of the Local Government Association’s People and Places Board, agrees: “Turning levelling up from a political slogan to a reality will only be achieved if councils have the powers and funding they need to address regional inequality, tackle concentrations of deprivation and make towns and communities across England attractive places to live, work and visit.”

Freeze rail fares

Finding money is crucial, too. A £27bn road building programme could be scrapped, argues Baker. Following the USA and Canada’s lead, a tax for kerosene on domestic flights could be introduced.

“That money could pay for a freeze on rail fares,” says Baker. “Let’s do that – start pricing things according to their carbon consequences.

“With a clear firm intention, a clear logic to what you’re doing and some political determination you can get anything through, actually. That one would be hugely popular – there are more people who use rail than use air. That’s a vote winner.”

For Crook, a simple measure would help ensure the survival of the fish and chip trade – a cut in VAT.

“We need a temporary VAT cut to zero, with a plan to reform VAT. The VAT system does not work in this sector,” he says.

“In the eyes of HMRC it’s the consumers that pay VAT. But in reality they don’t because we absorb it. There’s only so much you can charge for food, especially now.”

And what if none of this levelling up happens?

None of this may happen, of course. But Baker warns that reneging on the promise of levelling up could harm Truss prospects as the 2024 election creeps into view.

“I think there’ll be a great cynicism from people in the north who were promised a different approach from the Tories that won’t have materialised. I think therefore there will be a lot of ‘red wall’ seats that will disappear back to Labour, mostly in the north I think there’ll be a tendency to further alienate people from politics generally, which is a bad thing.”

Crook is blunter: “It’s potentially an extinction event for small businesses. We’re known as a nation of shopkeepers – that’s going to change if they don’t protect us.”

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