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Rishi Sunak has failed to show leadership on the government’s flagship “levelling up” policy designed to close the UK’s regional economic divides, according to the Institute for Government.
The think-tank, in a report published on Thursday, said that while there had been “some promising steps”, the prime minister’s failure to prioritise implementation of the policy meant it had “lost momentum” since last summer.
It also called on the Labour party, which is a long way ahead of the ruling Conservatives in the opinion polls, to clarify its version of the policy ahead of a general election expected next year.
Levelling up was a political pledge by former Conservative leader Boris Johnson in the 2019 general election campaign, which helped his party secure a landslide victory by winning traditionally Labour-held seats in the north of England and the midlands.
The policy was fleshed out into a white paper by levelling up secretary Michael Gove in February 2022, which identified 12 “missions” aimed at closing chronic regional inequalities by tackling areas such as productivity, income and life expectancy.
Gove’s white paper was a “genuine” attempt to succeed where previous government attempts dating back to the 1990s had failed, the IfG said. But “progress on levelling up has been undermined by the reduced momentum and political drive from the centre since July 2022”, after Johnson stepped down as prime minister, it added.
Both Sunak and his predecessor Liz Truss had “deprioritised” levelling up and “the agenda has stalled,” the report warned. It said the status of a cabinet committee, chaired by Gove, to drive the agenda through Whitehall had been “downgraded”, leaving it unable to make decisions.
Those interviewed for the report said Gove’s department had struggled to co-ordinate the agenda, which had “not been a priority for other departments” since Sunak entered Downing Street.
The IfG also looked ahead to a potential Labour government, noting that one of its mission statements, known as “opportunities for all”, appeared to mirror the premise of levelling up. But it urged the party to define it “much more clearly”.
For levelling up to be a success, any government needed to meet six key tests, including leadership from the top, which it said was critical.
The others are clearly defined goals, co-ordination across Whitehall departments, better collaboration between central and local governments, institutional stability, and good quality local data.
It said a central policy unit chaired by the prime minister would help “to capitalise on momentum early on”, while an independent oversight body with “teeth” was needed in order to hold the government to account on progress.
The government rejected the IfG’s findings as “untrue” and said it was “absolutely committed to this long-term programme of reform.”
It added: “Since October 2022, we have invested £2.6bn into projects across England, confirmed the locations of new freeports in Scotland and Wales and agreed landmark devolution deals for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, marking a seismic shift in power, funding and responsibility to local areas.”
Labour said if it won the next election, it would aim “to boost productivity growth in every region and nation by the end of the parliament and we will measure our success against living standards and good jobs in every part of the country”.