The advantage of naming a ministry “the Department for Levelling Up” is that no-one quite knows what it means. It sounds so abstract and dull that we’ll barely notice what is going on when it publishes its white paper this month. But this, in short, is what to expect: more local government – even though, when asked in referendums whether we want elected mayors, regional assemblies and so on, we invariably say “no thanks”.
In a speech last July the Prime Minister called for more metro mayors, covering rural shires as well as large cities; local bigwigs whose job would be “to get on a plane and go to the big trade and property fairs and hustle for their hometown”. Rather than have local politicians talking about gyratory systems and children’s swings, it seems he prefers them cavorting with Silicon Valley techies and Chinese developers, opening their chequebooks – or rather the taxpayers’ – to bribe them to set up shop in Handforth, or wherever.
It isn’t hard to see where this will lead: not to Bill Gates jetting into rural Cheshire to set up a new Microsoft hub but to a bigger state, puffed-up councillors with vast expense accounts, and more people on the public payroll. The PM may complain that Britain is over-centralised, but is that such a bad thing? Consider the alternative – a country like France, with its ‘strong’ local government, often run by extremist politicians of the left or right – and 5.5 million fonctionnaires. It is home to a staggering 34 965 mayors and 509,000 elected local representatives, amounting to some 1pc of the adult population. Shrinking the size of the state will always prove an uphill battle with so many on the public payroll.
What we really need to attract jobs and investment can quite adequately be set in Westminster: low taxes, easy regulations, the ability to hire global talent and an absence of tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. It helps to have decent infrastructure, too, though business doesn’t hinge on the speed of Inter City trains quite as much as officials are apt to believe. For all the hype surrounding France’s fabled TGV routes, their construction 40 years ago failed to spread prosperity to the regions or achieve the expected ‘levelling up’ .
Curiously, last summer the PM said it had been right to ‘crush’ local government in the 1980s, during “a real ideological conflict in which irresponsible municipal [socialists] were bankrupting cities” and were “genuinely hostile to business”. But now he thinks it would be different. Why, just because Labour put up Andy Burnham rather than a Corbynite for the Manchester mayoralty? Plenty of Trots will be salivating at the prospect of more local government – knowing that they would never win a national poll but a northern city might be within their grasp.
Nor have the councils who have embraced ‘entrepreneurship’ exactly been a success: Nottingham lost £34 million setting up its own energy company, while Croydon Council went bust after its commercial property investments went badly wrong. More local government? We would be better off with rather less.