he political dust has settled, and Conservative party members have now left the Manchester Central convention complex. In many ways, you couldn’t have had a more contrasting display of views last week. Party delegates, members of parliament, and ministers, were visibly excited to be back face-to-face at a conference, and eager for the party to deliver on its vision. Meanwhile, hundreds gathered outside on the opening day to protest – including social care workers that had walked from Burnley. A symbolic display of the challenges facing the Government as it seeks to keep both its supporters and the wider public onside.
Inside the conference hall, party members had just one thing on their mind. The Conservative Party is desperate to turn the rhetoric of levelling up into reality. This is now both a political and a practical issue for the Government and, most importantly, voters that live in left behind places. It knows it is under pressure to make progress before the next election and clearly define what success looks like. As Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, highlighted in a media interview at conference, the patience of new conservative voters promised investment through levelling up, “Won’t last forever’.
Key to delivering levelling up, in the eyes of many, is MP Neil O’Brien – recently promoted to Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Previously the Prime Minister’s personal advisor on the issue, he is someone many see as the grease to get the wheels moving.
Party members had just one thing on their mind. The Conservative Party is desperate to turn the rhetoric of levelling up into reality. Guto Davies, head of policy at ACE
Just as the ‘long term economic plan’ was the focus in 2015, and getting ‘Brexit done’ in 2019, ‘Levelling Up’ is the issue of the day. There were almost 10 fringe events held on the theme of levelling up on each day of the conference, including our own that I have already written about. Policy organisations know it is an issue that delivers access to ministers, however by its very nature it is a busy policy space which covers a huge degree of social and economic issues: health outcomes, wages, the standard of schools and productivity.
Behind the public image of unity around delivering up, there is a sense that Number 10, and indeed officials and ministers in the new Levelling Up Department, are under an immense pressure to deliver on different priorities – clearly Levelling up means different things to different people.
On the Sunday of conference, Neil O’Brien outlined what levelling up meant to him and argued that alongside economic growth and productivity, should be ideas around empowering local leaders and communities, spreading opportunity and improving public services whilst restoring local pride. A White Paper on levelling up has been in the works for a while, and according to government figures in Manchester is now, “imminent”.
There is a fear in some conservative circles that levelling up could mean simply moving resources from one part of the country to another. Neil O’Brien and the Government are keen to stop this concern in its tracks, by stressing that the agenda is, “not about north vs south, or city vs town. There are poor places even in affluent regions like the South East and London.”
Whatever the direction of travel, it is clear that our members offer something that others do not with a unique perspective on levelling up which is drawn from the mix of economic, advisory and environmental skills and expertise. We will continue to speak up on their behalf in this crowded debate.
While we’re on the theme of ‘tracks’, there were some mixed messages on rail investment. While we expected the Integrated Rail Plan and details of Northern Powerhouse Rail to be previewed, we instead heard Transport Secretary Grant Shapps implying that the Eastern leg of HS2 was being reconsidered. In contrast, the next day Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris reminded a fringe event that HS2 was in all parties manifestos.
As always in politics it’s not completely clear what’s happening, but it may well be that Treasury are looking for savings on HS2 and argue that Northern Powerhouse Rail, with its focus on east-west connectivity in the North, is sufficient to deliver the rail part of levelling up. We will soon see who wins this argument inside Government – this is likely to become clear by the time of the Spending Review at the end of the month.
The environment was the other main theme of the conference, both in terms of the nature and Net Zero agendas. With less than a month to COP26, there was plenty to be discussed at a number of Net Zero themed fringe events, and a range of contrasting views on display, with some concerned that current cost of living pressures could make our carbon ambitions unaffordable for some communities.
Our sector would argue that properly planned and executed, the Net Zero transition should not only be affordable but good for the economy. However, we need to be aware there are some strong contrasting voices out there.
Guto Davies is head of policy at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE).