|All it needs is a nice deli and a vegan cafe|
People in London, you know the sort - columnists in the Times, think tank wallahs, special advisors to junior ministers - are talking about 'levelling up' again. Nobody in the rest of the country is talking about levelling up. Our conversation can be summed up as "when will this bloody pandemic end" or variants on this sentiment including words like 'pub', 'holiday', 'gym' and 'grandchildren'.
The levelling up talk from these London Sorts isn't about what the term might actually mean or even about how to help people in (another popular phrase with London Sorts) 'left behind' places have happier, healthier and wealthier lives. That would be too simple. Instead the London Sorts talk about what will make it seem like there's been a levelling up:
Levelling up must mean more than just new schools and hospitals in these places. Voters need to see better broadband, better transport links and better high streets by the time of the next election
So Tweeted James Forsythe the political editor of the Spectator in a plug for his Times column. Now James is a typical London Sort whose knowledge and experience of everyday life in the North of Engand is close to zero. Not that I want to beat up on folk with an elite pubic school and Oxbridge education but when you see the phrase "these places" you get the impression that the idea of 'levelling up' doesn't in any way involve people like James getting to know anything about those places or the millions of people who live and work in them. For the likes of James, 'levelling up' is about a checklist of goodies handed over by a benevolent feudal overlord: "here peasants, have some cakes and ale for the holiday".
Elsewhere in the big city, other London Sorts are drawing up plans for that levelling up. Some of them have actually visited Grimsby, Mansfield or Mexborough (not stopping long and with the visit featuring meeting some consultants from Cheshire, the council chief executive and a token local councillor or business owner, plus the essential photo) but most prefer to rely on 'data'. And of course data is important but if you rely on information from interminable opinion polling (all produced by other London Sorts) then you're going to miss some of the nuance of what makes people who aren't London Sorts tick.
I read some deeply patronising articles explaining to us Northern folk that, of course, we are absolutely lined up behind a carbon neutral future - look there's some polling - and this means we're really fine about having people with man-buns and bicycles tell us we'll have to dump our cars for a more expensive alternative. All this was meant to show that ("really you know" writes some professor with a nice house in Salisbury or a flat in Docklands) the government deciding to splurge on 'green' investment is absolutely what all those flat-capped Northern sorts voted for nearly a year ago.
Part of the problem is 'investment' but there are too many people, including some in powerful and influential positions up here in the provinces, who seem to think that the very fact of government capital investment is enough, even if the net economic effect of that investment is negative. "Hey, we've got money for a tram and the regeneration of our high street, levelling up yay!" Then a few years later the call for cash is renewed because that investment ('vital investment' is the approved term) hasn't actually made much difference to people's lives.
The list given us by James Forsythe - broadband, transport links and high streets - represent the standard fare of lazy thinking about local economies and regeneration. Broadband is important, but the economic gain from spending billions of other people's money on connecting even more remote places provides at best marginal benefits and, in reality, probably delivers less actual return over its lifetime than the cost of building it. And this is before we start thinking about 5G and developing mobile technology. The thing is, however, that the minister can pop up in some carefully selected 'left behind' place and make a grand announcement about investment in broadband knowing that the actual economics of this investment makes no difference to its short-term political effect.
The same goes for investment in trains and, doubly so, talk about high streets. You can't make Mexborough's high street like the one you visited on your 'staycation' in the West Country because Mexborough is never going to be Frome or Totnes. And high streets aren't declining because of anything that government has done, they are declining because of the way in which we shop. It is crazy to pretend that taxes or great regeneration schemes are going to stop us doing our shopping sat on the sofa in our pyjamas. We know that Britain has a huge oversupply of retail property - in some towns (or "these places" as James Forsythe calls them) by as much as 50% - yet we are piling millions into regeneration plans that may well improve the public realm and might see a few 'community' schemes that work well but simply ignore the fundamentals.
Maybe this sort of Potemkin Village approach to levelling up is the right one - lots of cheering stories in the local papers, plenty of work for architects and consultants, and a sort of feel-good effect - but over a longer term it simply ignores the primary grumble. Let's be blunt here, the thing that pisses off 'these places' is the patronising, noblesse oblige of London Sorts. Don't get me wrong, places will always chase the investment, it will always be welcome even if it isn't really what's needed, but we all know up here in 'left behind' land that the attention, effect and enthusiasm will always be directed to London. And, because London Sorts are doling out the cash, then London Sorts will decide what's important.
The other day Boris Johnson mentioned a level crossing in Cleethorpes and various London Sorts claimed this as some sort of sea change in government attitudes to such investment. I'm sure this is welcomed in North East Lincolnshire but there are literally hundreds of such schemes and associated grumbles across Britain. Pretty much everywhere has one. The thing is, however, that the only one of these schemes that merits a ministerial task force is a bridge in London. No national media outlet gives a minute's thought to the hundreds of villages without an adequate bus service but minor timetable changes to trains from Brighton to London will hit the headlines. If it doesn't affect London Sorts it doesn't get attention.
'Levelling up' is as much about attention as it is about money. The lack of attention results in the sort of simplistic solutions listed by James Forsythe. Plus the continuing view that what London Sorts think is right for London must, obviously, be right for Tow Law and West Bromwich. So we get a (London-based of course) new quango to make sure councils are spending money on cycling schemes and not on maybe more useful things like better bus services. We get London Sorts telling us we should be building five-story Maida Vale mansion blocks everywhere because they like the vibe of that street scene, when the actual people who want a home prefer a three-bed semi with car parking and a garden.
Levelling up, if it is to mean anything, has to include levelling up that attention. Part of this might mean moving policy-makers away from London. Not to Manchester or Bristol but to Accrington or Keighley. Better still stop recruiting from the same little pool of Oxbridge graduates who went to your school. Beyond this we need some real devolution. Not the regional mayor rubbish - that's just the same old pretence of giving powers to local places while controlling the money and the rules from an office in Whitehall. Let local councils develop schemes themselves and raise their own finance. Allow local people the space and attention for them to actually run the places - "these places" - where they live. And let's have less of the patronising approach where the only attention places outside London get is a gentle pat on the head as the minister zips back south having launched the latest, doomed-to-fail, regeneration fund.