Coventry yet to be convinced by Boris Johnson’s talk of ‘levelling up’
Surrounded by gleaming steel on the floor of the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC), a first-of-its kind battery maker, Boris Johnson gave his speech in Coventry at the focal point of manufacturing for the electric car revolution.
“I worked for the company that supplied the machinery, that’s been here since 1911. Is he taking the credit?” he jokes, standing in Shelton Square, a patchwork of nail bars and betting shops by the historic market. Miller says the phrase “levelling up” means little to people.
George Duggins, the Labour leader of Coventry city council, goes further, calling it “vacuous” and saying it meant nothing while the local authority still had to deal with significant budget cuts.
Duggins says he was invited to the event expecting an opening of the UKBIC, rather than a party political speech.
“It was hijacked by the conversation around levelling up,” he says. “I still don’t know what levelling up is. It sounds great, but he just said [in his speech] he didn’t believe in austerity – I never knew at the time he didn’t believe in it. It’s downright nonsense.”
Duggins says the council has lost £120m a year as a result of austerity and there will be more cuts to come.
People will eventually see the prime minister’s rhetoric is hollow, says Duggins. “It is genuinely important work. But let’s not pretend by making speeches, we’ve solved it. We are 18 months on from those promises in the election.”
But there are others who say they can see a real effect of government attention on different regions. Passing through the square towards the arcade, Joanne Dyde is showing off the city to her sister Moira Gough, visiting from north Wales. The sisters, now in their 70s, went to school in Coventry and Dyde says it has been transformed. The pair are off to view the festival garden and museums involved in its year as UK city of culture.
But Dyde says new jobs brought by manufacturing have been the greatest gain. “Levelling up is about places getting that investment other than London and it is happening, there are new factories opening,” she says. “I totally believe in Boris, I’m a Boris fan. He’s an intelligent man, though he’s made mistakes, we all have.”
Dyde says she is impressed with change in the city, and the investment in the upper precinct. “I can look at it with fresh eyes, you wouldn’t recognise it, things have really changed.”
Allan Furness, 66, credited some of the investment in the town to the work of the West Midlands mayor, the Conservative Andy Street. “People in London listen to him, he can have a word and they open the purse strings,” he said.
Does he get better treatment because he’s a Conservative? “Possibly, but I think it helps to have anyone whose job it is to speak up for a region.”
But Alex, Gemma and Molly, all in their early 20s, say they are deeply sceptical of Johnson’s intentions. They say they feel cut out of the conversation around investment in their areas – and fear the scars of Covid on their generation cannot easily be healed.
“It feels like there is this huge push to get back to normality and I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Gemma says. “It’s all keep calm and carry on, it’s like they haven’t learned anything.” All said they felt there was little for young people who were not students. “There is not much for you,” Alex said.
Sabiha Khan, 18, sitting in the sun outside the market square, said levelling up had to be generational as well as regional. “I think what it should mean is education and spaces for kids to learn. Twenty years ago there were a lot of places for young people to go, now they are turning to knife crime and drugs and it’s no surprise.”
Khan, who will go to university in September, said it was clear that “Conservative cuts” were the driver. “If you want to level up, you have to start earlier, giving kids skills and confidence. There have been huge cuts in big industries that young people want to work in, that’s where you can have an impact.”