“Is this it? Is this really it?” Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow levelling up secretary, said in the Commons when Michael Gove presented the white paper to parliament on Wednesday. “Seriously, is this it?”
“Ministers have had two-and-a-half years to get this right and all we have been given is more slogans and strategies, with few new ideas,” Nandy said.
“High streets will only thrive when people have money in their pockets to spend. We need good jobs, decent wages, genuinely affordable housing and action to deal with the unfolding cost of living crisis so people can spend on their high streets and young people no longer have to get out to get on.”
The 332-page policy paper mentions poverty nine times – but only in reference to fuel poverty, as something the government says is entrenched by crime, or as part of research about wealth levels in Detroit and Germany.
Local authorities and experts have long called for clarity on the definition of “levelling up” and how it will be measured.
In the government’s 12-point plan, every part of England will be offered “London-style” powers and a mayor to make decisions on local spending.
Ministers also want to effectively eradicate illiteracy among primary school leavers within the next decade and give more people access to high-speed broadband. The government previously promised this by 2025, but the levelling up white paper will state a target of 2030.
A “National Spring Clean” will be launched too, according to the paper, in which people with convictions given community payback orders will be forced to litter pick and clean up graffiti.
The policy pledges – many of which do not include quantifiable targets – will be made law in a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
All four nations of the UK will benefit from the strategy, the government said, though the majority of pledges are focused on England.
The Scottish government criticised the plans for undermining the powers devolved away from Westminster.
Glasgow is to become one of three “innovation accelerator” areas, which promises a share of a £100m cash pot to boost opportunities in the region.
Holyrood ministers were not consulted “in any way” on the plans, a spokesperson said.
“We welcome all additional funding for Scotland but it is unacceptable for the UK government to again be deciding how money should be spent in areas of devolved responsibility without any meaningful consultation or engagement, despite continued assurances that relations will be reset with devolved governments,” they added.
“Similarly, we have not been consulted in any way on plans for an innovation accelerator in Glasgow.
“It is the Scottish government that should decide how this policy and funding is delivered in Scotland, in line with the devolved settlement.”
Gove rejected criticisms over a lack of new funding in the levelling up strategy. “There’s a difference between Rish [Sunak, chancellor] announcing that he’s going to give me money and me spending it,” he said.
Anti-poverty experts said more needed to be done “before the reality of these plans meets the rhetoric”.
Katie Schmuecker, deputy director of policy and partnerships at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “The prime minister has defined levelling up as delivering for the poorest, so this strategy should be assessed against its ability to reduce poverty across the country.
“A focus on rising employment, pay and productivity will only succeed if it delivers better jobs and pay for people on the lowest incomes. To make this happen we need to see investment in skills, childcare, local transport and affordable housing.
“Plans to reform the private rented sector are long overdue and really welcome to see. If done well, they will drive up standards and strengthen tenants’ rights, creating a more just housing system.
“We welcome the wide-ranging set of missions and targets but as ever, the proof will be in the delivery. Local areas must be trusted to make decisions about what is best for them, and crucially must be given the investment and powers they need to achieve this.
“The lack of new funding announced today, and an approach to devolution that appears to be quite centrally controlled, suggest more needs to be done before the reality of these plans meets the rhetoric.”
The Institute for Public Policy Research said the government’s ambition was welcome, but that it would achieve little without significant investment.
“Levelling up isn’t new,” said Carys Roberts, executive director for the think tank. “Many governments have tried and failed before.
“If this government wants to be any different it will have to be bold in passing real power to local areas and communities, and backing that up with significant funding.
“The sums already committed fall far short of what has been ripped out of communities during a decade of austerity – and of what other countries have shown is needed to narrow their regional divides.”
The government’s 12 “missions” to complete by 2030 include:
Increased pay and employment levels in every area of the UK, with each containing a “globally competitive city”
Research and development investment to increase by at least 40 per cent outside the Greater South East
Public transport to be improved to “closer to” London standards outside the capital
Nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for the “majority” of people
A “significant increase” in the number of children achieving expected standards in reading, writing and maths, with the percentage of children meeting those standards in the “worst performing” areas to increase by more than a third
An increase in the number of people completing skills training across every area of the UK, including an extra 200,000 people per year in England
The gap in healthy life expectancy between disadvantaged and affluent areas to narrow, rising by five years overall by 2035
Improved wellbeing in every area of the UK, with the gap between the most well-off and more deprived areas to close
“Pride in place” including people’s satisfaction with their town centres to rise
An increase in the number of first-time home buyers, with the “government’s ambition” for the number of non-decent rented homes to fall by 50 per cent
A drop in homicide, serious violence and neighbourhood crime
“Every part of England that wants one” to have a devolution deal with mayoral powers