Nandy announces Labour would scrap government levelling up missions

Katie Neame

Lisa Nandy has announced that Labour would scrap the government’s ‘levelling up’ missions, declaring that it is “fundamentally dishonest” to introduce measures of success without “even the faintest idea” of how to achieve them.

Addressing the Institute for Government’s conference this afternoon, the Shadow Levelling Up Secretary revealed that Labour would axe the 12 missions set out in the government’s levelling up white paper and create an “independent advisory council” to monitor progress on addressing regional inequality.

Nandy told attendees: “Every major challenge this country faces comes back to one thing. We have written off the talent, potential and assets of most of our people in almost every part of Britain. This is not just a tragedy, it’s a social crime. No part of Britain can succeed unless we grow our economy in every place, not just some.”

The Labour frontbencher said: “We will succeed where successive governments have failed, in various ways, to varying degrees for a century, and we will do so for one simple reason – ending a century of centralisation and unleashing the power of all people in all parts of Britain is no longer a nice to have, a local or a regional issue.

“It is at the heart of whether this country has a future or not. It is the only way to heal a fractured and divided nation. It is the only way to build an economy that works for most of us again, so we can fund our public services and sustain thriving places. It is the only way to build a country that works.”

Nandy announced that Labour will “change how we measure success” and condemned the government’s levelling up missions as “vague” and “disingenuous”.

She said: “Who can argue with the levelling up missions? But that is precisely why they offer so little. Thomas Jefferson once said the care of human life is the first and only task of government.

“These missions are the very essence of what it is to be decent government. Instead, they have been turned into ambitions that can be dropped or revised at a whim.”

“The Tories have taken their failure to deliver the most basic public services, taken their ideologically-driven crusade to run down our key institutions and twisted it into a perverse plan to keep shifting the goalposts on their record of delivery,” the Labour frontbencher argued.

She declared: “We say if you can’t deliver it, don’t write it down. So we will replace the current levelling up missions. Because, apart from anything else, it is fundamentally dishonest to introduce measures of success without definition, ambition clarity or even the faintest idea of how you meet them.

“We will instead establish an independent advisory council – drawn from every part of the UK – to monitor our progress towards a country where every part of Britain can contribute again to our collective success.”

Nandy said Labour’s work would be based around principles including: resilience in local, regional and national economies; connectivity to education, training, work, healthcare, family and friends; sustainability; and wellbeing.

She reiterated Labour’s commitment to bring forward a ‘Take Back Control’ Act, first announced by Keir Starmer earlier this month, and said the legislation is already in the process of being drafted.

The Labour leader pledged during his new year speech to introduce the legislation in Labour’s first term in government and “spread control out of Westminster”. He said Labour would “embrace the take back control message” and “turn it from a slogan to a solution” by devolving powers to local communities.

Starmer pledged to devolve new powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and council funding and to give communities a “right to request powers which go beyond this”.

The government unveiled its levelling up white paper in February 2022. It laid the foundations for Tories’ flagship levelling up and regeneration bill, which is currently making its way through parliament.

The white paper set out 12 missions to be achieved by 2030, including increasing pay, employment and productivity in every part of the UK, a narrowing in healthy life expectancy between areas where it is highest and lowest and an increase in the number of first-time home buyers across the country.

The Institute for Government concluded in March last year that the levelling up missions “will not reduce regional inequality”. The think tank argued that only four of the missions were “clear, ambitious and have appropriate metrics”.

Below is the full text of Lisa Nandy’s speech to the Institute for Government’s conference this afternoon.

We can’t go on like this. After 13 years of virtually no growth, we can’t fund our public services. Chief among them the NHS, our crown jewel, has been systematically run down to the point where millions of people can’t get treatment and patients lie on floors in A&E.

Our local economies are falling apart. High streets are to communities what the A&E department is to health and social care – the warning light on the dashboard that flashes when the system is breaking. Behind every boarded up high street is a local economy that is failing – failing to grow, failing to put money into people’s pockets, failing to give young people choices and chances so they don’t have to get out to get on. This is our failure in politics and government, not theirs. We are failing. After a decade of decay, lots of things need reform – politics chief among them.

We can’t even guarantee what should be a basic human right. A decent, secure home. Homeownership is falling, while mortgage rates and rents are soaring. One million people languish on social housing waiting lists, and the government is at the mercy of backbenchers who will and have blocked any signs of progress.

We’re in the middle of an energy revolution, and we’re failing. There’s no greater sign of this than the decision to reopen a coal mine at a time when Britain is trying to persuade the world to cut carbon emissions, and fast. These are the insular, short-sighted, ‘sticking-plaster’ solutions to wholly foreseeable problems that have come to characterise this government. Energy security compromised, leaving us at the mercy of global markets and clean energy jobs going overseas. For an island nation, this is an absurd place to find ourselves.

And every major challenge this country faces comes back to one thing. We have written off the talent, potential and assets of most of our people in almost every part of Britain. This is not just a tragedy, it’s a social crime. No part of Britain can succeed unless we grow our economy in every place, not just some. You can build a world class financial sector in London. You can’t create a game-changing wind industry. For that, you have to look to Fife and Grimsby.

The waves of political upheaval – rising nationalism, the vote to leave the EU, were the sound of a people who demand to take charge of their own destiny again. And credit to the Tories, they stepped into this void with a slogan that spoke to the moment. To solve a problem, you have to see it.

But after four years, all we have to show for it is a 297-page treatise on the Roman Empire. A government going backwards on its own missions. A year on and not a single ‘levelling up’ director is in post. The single biggest impact they’ve made on the levelling up agenda has been to crash the economy fuelling inflation that has wiped out the value of the meagre levelling up funds on offer.

So no more excuses. We will succeed where successive governments have failed, in various ways, to varying degrees for a century and we will do so for one simple reason – ending a century of centralisation and unleashing the power of all people in all parts of Britain is no longer a nice to have, a local or a regional issue. It is at the heart of whether this country has a future or not. It is the only way to heal a fractured and divided nation. It is the only way to build an economy that works for most of us again, so we can fund our public services and sustain thriving places. It is the only way to build a country that works.

Why would you trust us? When you’ve had dozens of different versions of enterprise zones over the last 30 years. Regional assemblies that were never realised. After an endless round of Northern Powerhouse press releases and every single promise broken. And a Hunger Games-style contest forcing communities to compete for small sums of their own money back after a decade of resources being stripped out of communities.

I’ll tell you why. Because rather than leaving this to one department, one minister and the whim of the next Tory Prime Minister to hold office, we’re going to bake this in to our first two terms of government, across the whole of government, and today I want to tell you a bit about how.

Firstly, we’ll introduce a ‘Take Back Control’ Act that is already in the process of being drafted and ready to go in government. The centrepiece will be to flip the presumption of power; instead of communities asking Westminster for powers, the government of the day will be under a legal duty to explain why not. And if there are reasons why not, they will have to set out a path for communities to take back control of their own destiny and work with them to realise that ambition.

So by the end of the first term of Labour government, every part of Britain that wants it will be able to access powers over skills, employment support and housing that support their local communities. To invest in the rail, tram and buses they need. With the right to drive major infrastructure projects not from Westminster, but from South Yorkshire, Cornwall and Teesside – working together across political boundaries. Because if Northern Powerhouse rail had been in the hands of the north, without constant interference from government, you can bet we would have delivered it by now.

This is how we’ll rebuild the national economy. Through local growth drawing on the unique strengths of our brilliantly diverse country, driven by communities and their leaders, with the support of their government. A government that matches the ambition found in every part of our country.

Secondly, we will change how we measure success. GDP can tell you a lot about the relative productivity of a region or a whole nation, but very little about the health of a nation, the strength of a community, the resilience in the economy and family finances. And our overreliance on this one measure is one of the central reasons why we have not succeeded despite a century of trying.

It is curious how this remains one of the great weaknesses of politics. While businesses across Britain use a dashboard of measures to gauge success, as politicians, we are stuck with analogue measures in a digital age. The levelling up white paper drew on the most interesting work in the field, from the work of pioneers like Diane Coyle, Matthew Agarwala and Partha Dasgupta, to develop the six capitals which form the foundation of thriving places with strong local economies. But these were recycled into vague, disingenuous measures of success – that as the IfG said, would not reduce regional inequality even if they were met. In short, they tell us little about the problem we are trying to solve.

Who can argue with the levelling up missions? But that is precisely why they offer so little. Thomas Jefferson once said the care of human life is the first and only task of government. These missions are the very essence of what it is to be decent government. Instead, they have been turned into ambitions that can be dropped or revised at a whim.

Longer healthier, happier lives, blighted by less crime and supported by good public services are not an aspiration for government, but a right that any government worth its salt should strive to realise. Instead, the Tories have taken their failure to deliver the most basic public services, taken their ideologically-driven crusade to run down our key institutions and twisted it into a perverse plan to keep shifting the goal posts on their record of delivery.

We are calling time on this. We say if you can’t deliver it, don’t write it down. So we will replace the current levelling up missions. Because, apart from anything else, it is fundamentally dishonest to introduce measures of success without definition, ambition clarity or even the faintest idea of how you meet them. We will instead establish an independent advisory council – drawn from every part of the UK – to monitor our progress towards a country where every part of Britain can contribute again to our collective success. Based around metrics which will be centred around the following principles which deliver tangible outcomes for people. These will include:

Resilience in local, regional and national economies. Where are we overly reliant on one local employer or one sector (the financial sector), or too few parts of Britain (the cities)? Does every region and nation have access to a broad range of financial capital and investment? Where is there the least resilience in family finances, only one payday away from crisis?Because if not, those people and places are far too exposed to these largely unforeseen economic shocks – like the pandemic, the global financial crash, a Liz Truss government…

We believe connectivity is essential to levelling up. Connectivity to education, training, work, healthcare, family and friends. We include this broadest range because prosperity is not simply material consumption. Do people have the ability to live richer, larger more dignified lives without having to leave the place they call home? Social connectedness is lower in London and major cities. Doesn’t this suggest we might be getting something wrong, for our cities as well as our towns?

Sustainability – the one measure that seems to feature least in this government’s plans. Are we building something that can last, that can help us create and sustain the country we need? The pandemic exposed the risk of omitting nature from economic calculations. It is madness that you can add to GDP by chopping down a forest, but not by protecting the wildlife and natural capital that give us clean air, green space and protection from pandemics. If we were measuring success by looking beyond the next ten years, we would be investing in new nuclear in Cumbria, with thousands of jobs that will last for decades, not reopening a coal mine to create hundreds of jobs that are already being phased out.

And wellbeing once a consensus, from Blair and Brown to Cameron and Osborne. But in this short-term, Westminster-knows-all era, the people have been cut out of the conversation. But how people feel about their own lives can tell us a lot about whether we’re getting this right. How do people feel about their ability to influence their own lives, communities and country? And the institutions that serve them. Are we building communities that match the needs and ambitions of the people who live in them?

We are trying to measure 21st century progress using what the economist Diane Coyle calls 20th century statistics. But if we adjust the lens, suddenly the things that matter come back into focus.

Thirdly, we will go wide and deep. Where the Tories have remained wedded to a city-led model of growth and devolution that has not served either our towns, villages or cities well, we will spread power wider and deeper. In government, our policies will be assessed for its spatial dimension and the contribution it makes to tackling the intra- and interregional inequality.

We are prepared to think differently about how to do this. The Gordon Brown commission, for example, recommended that we enshrine constitutionally protected social rights for all of our citizens, that guarantee minimum standards and public services for all of us, not just some – in all places, not just some. Because without this, the risk is we will revert to the habits that have served us all badly for far too long and continue to invest in places where we get more bang for our buck, leaving some to pull further ahead while others continue to fall further behind.

We can’t and won’t go on like this. [Britain] is almost unique in trying to power a modern economy using only a handful of people in a handful of sectors in a few parts of the country. Even the winners are losing. It is at times when things are so fundamentally broken that real change becomes possible. And that is why we will rise to this moment of national renewal to oversee a great rebalancing of power and prosperity across the whole of the United Kingdom.

This is at the heart of our nation’s future. And it is this recognition that gives me the confidence that we will succeed this time. Every problem our country faces comes back to this central truth. That is why the time for excuses is long past. There is no alternative, and failure is no longer an option.

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