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Levelling Up must mean more to councils than mowing the grass...

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

As an ex-Council Leader, I try to keep out of the day-to-day commentary of the organisation I led. The truth is that is hard to watch my successor squander £1.8 billion of private sector investment for regeneration, scrap a state-of-the-art youth zone, abandon plans for 800 new council homes and abolish plans for a first time buyer grant of up to £10,000 for local residents to get them on the housing ladder, without commenting on every piece of propaganda that is released.

However, something has bothered me. Really bothered me. Last week I stumbled upon a Linkedin post from the CEO of my former Council. Accompanied by pictures of council officers cutting back trees and mowing the lawn, the post read:

“The government[s] Levelling Up agenda is something I have taken a keen interest in. Plans to rejuvenate areas of the country with much needed investment to inspire growth is something I am keen to see develop and further in Basildon.

“Our Safe and Sound programme is a multi-million-pound programme to refresh and improve some of our estates, building up our borough to create communities people feel proud to call home. Working with partners is key to achieving our vision for our residents and businesses.

“Work has begun on the Felmores estate in Basildon where we’ll be tidying up communal areas, improving public facilities, completing repair works and engaging with residents over the next few months.

“I really want people to be proud of where they live, and this programme shows our commitment to making this happen.”

Now, putting to one side the fact that these estates are only in the condition they are in because for 17 years my predecessors neglected to invest in their upkeep (until my Administration took over in 2017 and put the multi-million pound scheme in place via the Housing Revenue Account - something that has nothing to do with council general funds or central government grants), the conflation of the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda with business as usual (BAU) services is seriously worrying for various reasons.

Firstly, from a political point of view, Labour Councillors and MPs should be seriously concerned that local government officers are using flagship Conservative policy and language in common discourse in this way. Would you ever have seen council CEOs writing Linkedin posts about how pruning was helping the JAMs under Theresa May, the Big Society under David Cameron or the Third Way under Blair and Brown? No, you really would not. Yet somehow it has become acceptable for civil servants to trot out the term ‘Levelling Up’ to describe any announcement or service, no matter how much of it is BAU. When civil servants are using policy terms in this way, it is plain wrong.

Politically, one of the beauties for the Conservatives has been the vacuous nature of ‘Levelling Up’. It means that it can be applied to almost any situation and mean almost anything to anyone. When CEOs are endeavouring to imply that cutting the grass and pruning the trees on deprived estates is to be classed as ‘Levelling Up’, then Labour should be calling this out in the strongest possible terms. It is turning into a dangerous farce.

In the 2022 local government elections, I saw time and time again, the government receiving undue credit for their ‘Levelling Up’ agenda in places like Sunderland, when in fact the city is being transformed by the Labour-led council. The Opposition will have to tackle the notion that when councils get the basics right, it is somehow a consequence of ‘Levelling Up’ and the Conservative government, and nothing to do with the local Labour Councillors delivering major policy reforms.

Secondly, Labour will need to challenge the ambition. In the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren, the UK needs “big, structural, change." It means the private and public sector will need to work together to deliver that change. So, is the message that councils want the private sector to hear about ‘Levelling Up’ in our communities to really be reduced to cutting the bushes and the trees? Are the forgotten communities left behind under austerity really going to bank on bushes being cut as their path to higher skilled and higher wage jobs? Whilst the aesthetics of estates is pivotal and the ‘broken glass’ theory is one I think has real merit, a council’s ability to tidy its paths, isn’t really the grand agenda I, and many others, envisaged ‘Levelling Up’ being.

Despite being in a wealthy county, #Basildon is the 5th most economically unequal place in the UK. Life expectancy differs by 10 years from the north of the borough to the south of the borough. It has more children in child poverty than #Barnsley. It has the highest rate of NEETs in Essex, and its secondary school attainment gap is widening. In fact, across true blue, Tory Essex, on every single social mobility indicator, the county is moving backwards at an alarming rate. Yet the message that the CEO of the largest council in Essex is sending to the investment community on Linkedin is that ‘Levelling Up’ is about mowing the grass. It’s unbelievable and in stark contrast to the kind of reform agendas councils like #Sunderland, #Stevenage and #Southampton actually have, which are demonstrably changing people’s lives.

Labour must get after this lack of ambition and the ambiguity a lack of consensus on what ‘Levelling Up’ means for councils and communities. I would suggest that, political parties and politicians, should dictate and be clear about what can and cannot be constituted as a consequence of Levelling Up, not Council CEOs and officers. To blur these lines is to cross into a grey area which will have far-reaching political consequences.

‘Levelling Up’ should be about working people, no matter their postcode, fulfilling their ambitions for themselves and their families with a good job, a secure home, a safe community to live, work and raise a family within and access to the public services that educate their kids, care for their sick and provide dignity in old age.

It's a vision that is a far cry from sweeping the paths.

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