Jack Brown: What if “move up” doesn’t mean what London thinks it should?
Last week’s anger at the government over its approach to rail transport in both London and the north may miss the point
The last week has been a great “leveling up” week. The news that the government was withdrawing its pledges to provide improved transport infrastructure for northern England, understandably, sparked angry reactions from northern newspapers and politicians. The removal of the east wing of HS2 and the substantial downgrade of Northern Powerhouse Rail were then announced. At the same time, Transport for London’s equally miserable story of “managed decline” emerged, a reminder that the “no expense spared south” accusations are outdated and perhaps unjustified. But it’s hard to argue that the north hasn’t been abandoned.
The removal of delegated powers from Transport for the North, as well as the refusal to grant TfL long-term financial settlement, suggests a takeover by Whitehall, although the government presents its “new approach” to transport infrastructure in the north as one of the timelines hat: Boris Johnson says the originally promised plan would take too long to implement and the north would go decades without the transportation improvements it needs. To say otherwise is “total nonsense,” he said.
Given that all of these infrastructure investments take a long time, this seems like a thin argument. And as the week turned into the weekend, national news coverage began to wonder if this was a grave betrayal of the central political commitment of this government. How can the “backward” part of the country known as “Not London” be “straightened out” without major investments in transport infrastructure?
But are these really “leveling” curtains, as some think? I think it speaks for a broader truth about the slogan.
Although a government department is named after her, “leveling” remains a deliberately nebulous agenda that can mean different things to different people. For those pondering and discussing the UK’s deeply ingrained regional inequalities, it means long-term planning and investment in things like physical and digital infrastructure, research and development, and the decentralization of power and resources that could fix regional differences in productivity, life expectancy , Level of education, skills and opportunities. This is a long term project to overcome decades, if not centuries, of history and free the country’s economy from its intense concentration in the south east of England.
However, there is another definition. This other version of “leveling up” is more about the tone. It means responding to the voices of smaller settlements across the country who are primarily voting in favor of the exit, from former industrial towns and poorly connected coastal communities to wealthy homeowners. These places are very different and many are less “left behind” and more “very nice places to live, thank you”. But what they all have in common is that they are not cities. They may want different things, but they are similar in that they don’t want what the “liberal metropolitan elite” wants. For some voters, “leveling up” likely also means kicking London a bit.
The Conservative Home pages have occasionally reflected these sentiments and formulated the “leveling” in relation to civic pride. The argument goes something like this: People don’t want a high-speed train to connect their city with a big city and for their living to gradually become “city-like” in terms of growth, development and demographics. Rather, they want to live in a place that doesn’t look shabby, has decent public services, and that hard-to-define sense of purpose and decency that creates “pride”. And you will want to see some leveling up results soon.
Politically minded people have found that this can be done with relatively small amounts of cash within one or two parliaments. For the government, elected in 2019 on the basis of “borrowed” “Red Wall” votes, there is an urgent need to show something for all the “leveling” rhetoric before the next election.
It has little to do with London – it’s just not about the capital. It’s about location and politics. It’s not about people, poor or not. Nor is it about cities, productivity and connectivity – not even cities in Northern England and the Midlands. The main thing is to make the blue parts of this card feel like they’re being listened to.
That doesn’t fully explain the cancellation of the eastern part of HS2. There is a compelling argument that the UK is investing much less in its overall infrastructure than it should, and a more general argument that successive governments fail to invest in long-term projects that successive governments will recognize. The National Infrastructure Commission should take some of the short-term nature out of such decisions, but can only make recommendations.
Remember, however, that many of us understand “leveling” such a blank canvas as “doing things that I think are important.” Journalists, politicians and think tankers value trains – they are more likely to use trains than buses or vans because of the nature of their work. But for most voters, and perhaps most national politicians, “leveling” is not about moves at all.
A survey by the Center for London in 2019 showed that while people outside the capital think London is getting more than its fair share of the public transport investment, they are not jealous of Londoners’ commuters. Londoners have the longest average commute times in the country and some of the most crowded trains.
Outside the capital, people are much more likely to live close to their work, walk or drive. Most people across the UK really want a train to better connect them to a big city? Or would you prefer the state to invest in and improve the place where in many cases they live?
“Leveling up” just doesn’t mean what some of us want it to be. Perhaps journalists and politicians who advocate long-term policies to make things better for the people of London and “Not London” need a fresh approach.
Jack Brown is a lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. Follow Jack on Twitter. Photo: King’s Cross Station.
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