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28 Jul 2021

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Politics and Society

Heavily trailed as his ‘plan for levelling up’, Boris Johnson delivered a strikingly radical diagnosis of the UK’s inequality problem on 15 July. Conservatives have often used ‘levelling up’ as a euphemism, since they generally avoid the term ‘inequality’.

At Coventry, however, Johnson talked of the UK suffering ‘huge inequalities’ long before Covid-19, which the pandemic has ‘deepened’. The UK is also, he said, one of Europe and the developed world’s most ‘unbalanced’ economies.

The ‘crux of the argument’, the Prime Minister concluded, is ‘this country is not only one of the most imbalanced in the developed world, it is also one of the most centralised – and those two defects are obviously connected’.

Levelling up is primarily designed to appeal to Conservative voters in northern England, and to the MPs they now send to Westminster, but any attempt to level up the UK needs a plan for London and the south-east.

Many disadvantaged people live in these largely affluent areas; moreover, Johnson needs ‘levelling up’ to resonate with prosperous voters in the region. Hence, the Coventry speech was delivered with one eye on this core support: levelling up is not, he insisted ‘a jam-spreading operation’.

It’s ‘not robbing Peter to pay Paul, it’s not zero sum’, he went on, ‘it’s win-win for the whole United Kingdom’.

An unbalanced economy means some places overheat while others lack dynamism. Concentrating new investment where ‘house prices are already sky high and transport is already congested’, the Prime Minister argued, has led to long commutes and crowded trains, leaving people little time to spend with their families.

They worry both that ‘the younger generation won’t be able to get a home and that their leafy suburb or village will be engulfed by a new housing development without the infrastructure to go with it.’

Our research on ‘Comfortable Leavers’ suggests that Johnson may be on to something here. While these well-off, Leave-leaning voters shared many worries and concerns across England, those around the fringes of London raised some distinctive issues.

Long before Johnson travelled to Coventry, this group already felt that they were paying the costs of economic imbalance, over-development and congestion, especially traffic jams.

‘Every inch of land is being built on’ one man said. His Essex town is ‘becoming increasingly crowded.’ ‘The traffic, the M25, which is only a (few) miles away from us, we’ve seen a massive increase in traffic’.

He tied overdevelopment to a decline in some public services: ‘The local police station was closed down and sold to property developers, so now we’re serviced by the police station’ in another town.

Another man from London’s northern outskirts complained that ‘every little bit of land that’s available has already been built, and recreation-wise, what we used to have before is no longer available. It’s very, very crowded. Traffic-wise, its failing.’

A woman from a Surrey town said ‘it’s actually really nice here’, but went on ‘I also notice there’s a lot of development, even here out on the edge of the greenbelt, with a lot of building now and a lot of new housing.’

That’s ‘fine’ she said, but ‘it’s putting a lot of pressure on the resources, particularly the roads, which are becoming really crowded. There are certainly some times of day when I wouldn’t normally try to drive anywhere locally because the traffic is just too bad and you just get stuck in really long jams, and that’s a pity. I don’t know what the answer to that is.’

Another Surrey woman shared the concern about traffic, linked to housing development: ‘it is extremely crowded at certain times of day … with the increasing housing that’s being built’.

Concerns about overdevelopment were not exclusive to the south-east.

A man in the Yorkshire countryside complained about 4,000 new houses being developed outside his 200 house village. ‘There’s no amenities, there’s nothing’ he said. ‘We haven’t even got a pub’. Even so, the south-east’s persistent preoccupation with overdevelopment differed sharply from elsewhere in Britain.

Beyond roads and traffic, the south-east’s Comfortable Leavers were often pleased with local services.

One spoke of ‘very good education, very good schools’. Another recognised wide-spread strains on public services, but noted ‘in the area that I am in, which is quite a nice area … we’re fortunate with the services’ we have. Policing, crime and personal safety are, though, a major concern for many.

The views expressed by these comfortably off people reveal the depth of their feelings about congestion and infrastructure in the south-east. They create a problem for Johnson: the more he interprets levelling up as rebalancing, and especially as resolving inequalities, the more he risks antagonising (potentially) disgruntled voters in the south-east.

To be ‘win-win’, levelling up must dramatically rebalance the UK economy, moving away from a growth model driven from the south-east. Even then, Johnson’s ‘win-win’ rhetoric hardly disguises contentious choices over the location of public investments.

Neither enhancing global London nor addressing congestion and crime around its fringes come cheap. Will correcting the UK’s ‘huge’ and ‘deepening’ inequalities win out instead?

Comfortable Leavers have high expectations of Brexit as an opportunity to transform the UK, but precisely how is much less clear. Some in the south-east called for ‘more localised power for local government’. Others were fatalistic, saying ‘I don’t know what the answer is’.

Decentralising power might allow crime and safety to be addressed locally. It could help limit housing development, thereby probably constraining growth. Local action in the south-east should not be expected to rebalance the UK.

London sucks in the UK’s graduates. Many later move out to the wider south-east in search of more space and affordable houses, perhaps when planning a family. These dynamics change England’s electoral geography.

The Chesham and Amersham by-election sounded a warning for Boris Johnson. Making ‘levelling up’ attractive to traditionally Tory Home County constituencies deepens the challenges he faces in appealing to their changing electorates.

By Professor Dan Wincott, research director at UK in a Changing Europe.

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