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How can 'levelling up' become a reality?

It was announced this week that Tory MPs are launching a Levelling Up Taskforce. The new group – which includes many of the MPs installed in former ‘Red Wall’ seats back in December – will place additional, internal pressure on the government to tackle regional inequality.

The idea behind ‘levelling up’ is that the the Conservative government can, armed with the backing of ‘Red Wall’ constituencies never represented before, correct the imbalances within the UK. The Johnson administration has hinted that this involves elements of devolution and infrastructure spending. But the ‘levelling up’ programme remains, at this stage, a pencil sketch not a blueprint.

Moreover, its credibility has taken a hit following the post-COVID cancellation of plans to raise the minimum wage – not to mention the A levels algorithm scandal, which did the opposite of ‘levelling up’. If the idea is to avoid the fate of ‘the Big Society’ then more detail and texture is needed.

With this said, the present government would not be alone in struggling to work out what ‘levelling up’ – and ideas like it – mean in practice.

Ever since the 2016 Referendum result there has been an acute awareness, across the political spectrum, of the new fault lines that Brexit exposed. These fault lines have been framed, variously, as ‘London versus the rest’, as ‘cities versus towns’, as ‘Somewheres versus Anywheres’ or as ‘open versus closed’; a political tug of war between ‘citizens of nowhere’ and their ‘left behind’ counterparts. But the cure has remained much more elusive than the diagnosis.

The big challenge for these analyses – all of which riff on a similar and important theme – is that they translate far more easily into rhetoric than into policy. The image conjured of the ‘left behind’ town is often vague: a burnt-down pier, a boarded-up high street, a station at the end of the branchline or the skeleton of a colliery. Yet the truth is that few places fully fit the stereotype. Not all small towns are ‘left behind’. And, indeed, not all ‘left behind’ places are left behind in the same ways. Hence, while powerful in painting the broad brushstrokes of a speech or a tweet, the ‘towns agenda’ and ideas like it are harder to enact.

How much do Blackpool, Darlington, Grimsby and the city of Wolverhampton really have in common, once you set aside the fact that they are politically very different from the Hackneys or Camdens of this world? And that’s before you factor in towns not included among the 'Red Wall' seats – be they Clacton, Crawley or Rochdale. Does a single policy lever exist which can solve the problems of all these places? Almost certainly not.

Our new report, the ‘Understanding community resilience in our towns’, tries to break the ‘towns’ label into its constituent parts, looking at ‘resilience’ across English and Welsh settlements. We use ‘resilience’ to analyse how open a town is to change and difference – but also to unpack the root causes which sit beneath this. After all, a settlement is less likely to be welcoming to new groups if it is cut off from transport infrastructure or facing industrial decline.

We find 14 characteristics across the 862 towns we look at. These range from places being ‘less connected’ or having ‘shrinking and ageing’ populations, to their experiencing ‘cross cutting deprivation’, ‘rapid change’ or ‘fewer heritage assets’. The characteristics are not necessarily negative – some come with benefits as well. But each can put resilience under significant duress.

Through a detailed data audit of all 862 towns, these 14 characteristics help to see what makes the challenges faced by each town unique. But they also allow decision-makers to identify the groups of places which share similar traits – thus feeding into more effective and targeted policies.

If the ‘towns agenda’, the Levelling Up Taskforce and other initiatives to tackle regional inequality are to sustain themselves in a long-term sense, then we need to dig down into the terms we are using. We need to ask what, precisely, we are looking to ‘level up’ in the hundreds of very different places across England and Wales. And we need to acknowledge that the answers will probably be different in each one.

Chris Clarke is a Policy Researcher at HOPE not hate


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