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The Prime Minister’s speech a fortnight ago in Dudley cemented a long-standing change to the public messaging surrounding his election-winning promise to tackle regional disparity. ‘Levelling up’ had featured in every major speech since Johnson took office, but since March has had its place as the chief mission of his Government supplanted, understandably, by the immediate challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As public and political attention has turned from the health crisis brought about by the virus to the sizable economic challenges present as normal life gradually returns, the shift away from ‘levelling up’ was cemented by the Government’s pledge of a ‘New Deal’, committing to ‘build build build’ to help solve the UK’s economic woes. Rather than publicly brandish a return to pre-pandemic promises and slogans, the Prime Minister’s ‘New Deal’ speech portrayed policies such as putting ‘infrastructure at the centre of the government’s economic growth strategy’ as unique proposals tailored to the needs of these new circumstances.

However, these circumstances, rather than causing entirely new problems, have in fact underlined, and shone new light on, the existing disparities between regions of the UK that motivated the original focus on ‘levelling up’. One example of this – and particularly prescient during a pandemic – is the health inequalities between prosperous and deprived areas. As the national lockdown has eased, it has been found that the most at risk areas for a resurgence of the virus are overwhelmingly in the North, due to a higher prevalence of ‘deprivation and denser housing’, which was the case long before Covid-19. This is epitomised in Leicester, where many live in impoverished conditions, as it became the first UK city to be specifically targeted in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. Even more starkly, the mortality rate of Covid-19 is twice as high in the most deprived areas compared to the wealthiest, as evidenced by data from the Office for National Statistics. 

The economic inequality that exists between the North and South of England, the solving of which was the broad purpose of ‘levelling up’, is exemplified in the extent of the recovery that is expected to take place in each respective region in the aftermath of the coronavirus lockdown. The North of England already suffered from above average unemployment rates, a result of, according to Amy Norman of the Social Market Foundation, ‘the lasting hardships of the last decade’. Consequently, many places in the North will be ‘particularly vulnerable’ in this economic crisis, with London and the South East expected to recover more quickly while the North East will be hardest hit, due to a long-standing lack of economic resilience. 

The outcomes of this crisis, given renewed importance but ultimately stemming from the pre-coronavirus conditions of life in less-prosperous areas, therefore seem apt to be solved by a ‘levelling up’ of health and wealth. Indeed, despite the change in branding, in his speech the Prime Minister simply ‘reprised’ his election-winning promises of spending on infrastructure, schools and hospitals, with the headline announcement merely the ‘acceleration’ of £5bn of capital investment projects.

The replacement of ‘levelling up’, in the Government’s messaging rather than its policies, can therefore be explained by a need to display fresh thinking in tackling this unprecedented set of problems. The description of a ‘new deal’ represents change and a break from the past – in this case the pre-Covid ‘normal’ – while the triplet of ‘build build build’ conveys an urgency in the Government’s work while they attempt to kickstart the UK’s economy. 

The pandemic has overshadowed ‘levelling-up’ as the government’s main message, first because of the inevitable attention ‘the greatest challenge since World War 2’ demanded, but second because of the Government’s own decision to relegate the phrase to a soundbite within the detail of the speech rather than the headline. But simultaneously, it has revealed those same inequalities, like those in health and economics, that made the promise of a country ‘levelled up’ so appealing at the 2019 General Election.

Therefore, despite the change in messaging, the intentions – and, by the Government’s own admission, the policies – behind ‘levelling up’ are more important than ever and rightly remain integral, even as remnants of what now seems a long-ago era, in our ‘new deal’ normal.

David McPadden is currently undertaking a week’s work experience with Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.