Blog: Levelling up – far too little, way too late

We will make our own judgements on whether there is genuine levelling up for all workers

Portrait of Christina McAnea

It was 13 December 2019 when Boris Johnson gave his first speech as prime minister outside Downing Street. We were promised ‘a people’s government’, and he crowed: “We are going to unite and level up” – one of the slogans that helped secure the PM’s victory.

But here we are, over two years later, and the government has only just published its Levelling Up white paper, touted as its strategy to reduce geographical inequalities in economic prosperity and opportunity.

The country is just as divided, now, as the Tory Party is in its support for the PM. Levelling up has progressed no further than slogans and promises. And all the while the cost-of-living crisis is biting: today we’ve received two more hits – a massive 54% increase in the energy price cap, and an expected hike in interest rates.

UNISON would always welcome genuine efforts to help less well-off areas, ensure high quality services, and put decision-making in the hands of local communities. These have been central to our campaigns for years. But after 11 years of cuts, central government funding for local authorities has fallen in real terms by over 50% between 2010–11 and 2020–21 – a direct result of Tory policy.

And now, analysis by a think tank has pointed out that the levelling up paper makes few commitments above the 2021 spending review. And this was a spending review that failed to offer anywhere near enough to compensate for the last decade of cuts, and condemned another generation to declining public services.

Local services have been almost destroyed by the Westminster government, while the staff who provide them have seen the value of their pay decline massively – leading to the huge recruitment and retention problems we see now and the decline in local economies.

UNISON has always been clear about what is needed: a major reinvestment in local services. Otherwise the new metro mayors the government is talking about are just being given responsibility for managing more cuts and decline.

We will also make our own judgements on whether there is genuine levelling up for workers in all regions. This will depend on the share of national income received in workers’ pay packets, progress in eradicating gender pay gaps, ethnicity pay gaps and disability pay gaps, and whether regional disparities in wealth, job opportunities, public service provisions and government investment persist.