Boris Johnson attempts to reassure southern MPs over ‘levelling up’
Boris Johnson will attempt to reassure Tory MPs in south-east England that his flagship “levelling up” policy does not involve directly favouring the party’s new power base in the north and Midlands at their expense.
In a speech in the West Midlands on Thursday, billed by Downing Street as a major step in the prime minister’s attempts to outline the strategy, Johnson was due to argue that people in commuter belt areas would benefit from the government’s new focus on its northern “red wall”.
In extracts of the speech released in advance, Johnson says that too much previous government investment was focused, with detrimental effects, on “areas where house prices are already sky high and where transport is already congested”.
“By turbocharging those areas, especially in London and the south-east you drive prices even higher and you force more and more people to move to the same expensive area,” he says. “The result is that their commutes are longer, their trains are more crowded, they have less time with their kids. They worry at the same time that the younger generation won’t be able to get a home and that their leafy suburb or village will be engulfed by new housing development but without the infrastructure to go with it.”
The strategy is an apparent attempt by Johnson to reconcile the often conflicting political priorities of seats within towns and other communities in the north of England and Midlands, many won from Labour in 2019, with those in longstanding Conservative heartlands around London.
Last month, in an almost entirely unexpected election result the Conservatives lost the Buckinghamshire constituency of Chesham and Amersham to the Liberal Democrats, shedding a 16,000-vote majority.
A number of Tory MPs were spooked by the scale of the loss and the many reports from Lib Dem campaigners of former Conservative voters expressing some distaste for Johnson and complaining that they felt taken for granted.
There is also concern among “blue wall” Tories in the south-east about the amount of spending on projects through the towns fund, and the levelling up funds being focused on the north and Midlands to the detriment of their constituencies.
In the speech Johnson will try to explain what he terms “the difference between this project and levelling down”, arguing: “We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies. We don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer. Levelling up is not a jam-spreading operation. It’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s not zero sum, it’s win-win.”
There are, however, expected to be few policy details in the speech; much of this could be in a levelling-up white paper not due before the autumn.
Johnson has faced criticism that “levelling up” largely remains a slogan and relates to a series of sometimes confusingly administered funds. In the spring, Johnson appointed Neil O’Brien, the Harborough MP, to flesh out the policy within No 10.
There have also been concerns about the allocation of money already distributed under the rubric of levelling up. An examination of one scheme, the community renewal fund, found it appeared overwhelmingly skewed towards Tory-held areas, despite its stated intent to target the most deprived regions.
Among 93 English regions placed in the priority group of three tiers to receive money from the £4.8bn levelling up fund, 31 are included yet are not ranked as in the top third most deprived places by average deprivation score.
Labour has called for an independent investigation into the way the funding is decided.
But in his speech Johnson will argue that the intent for the policy was clear, saying: “We will have made progress in levelling up when we have begun to raise living standards spread opportunity, improved our public services and restored people’s sense of pride in their community.”