The Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his Levelling Up speech in Coventry (Image: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street)
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Boris Johnson has once again promised to "level up" across the whole of the UK – a country he became Prime Minister of almost two years ago.
If you've a gnawing suspicion you've heard him say that before, you're not wrong.
Mr Johnson repeated it during the 2019 election campaign and has a habit of bringing it up in response to questions about government inaction on everything from child poverty to unemployment.
Now, as charities and health experts warn the Covid pandemic is drastically widening inequalities in health, wealth and education, the PM has made a high-profile speech in Coventry in the hope he can reset the Government's agenda.
“Levelling up is not a jam-spreading operation, it is not robbing Peter to pay Paul, it is not zero sum, it is win-win,” he said.
But amid the Prime Minister's vague pledges of "magic sauce" and vows "levelling up" will not mean the Government will "decapitate the tall poppies" elsewhere, there were few new policies.
County mayors, county "deals" funding and plans to spruce up some high streets were among the thin gruel doled out by Mr Johnson as Labour leader Keir Starmer dismissed the speech as "all soundbites and no substance".
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But the simple fact is that Mr Johnson's party has been in power for 11 years – and thousands of communities have seen their quality of life levelled down.
During the last last decade, Tory austerity has wiped £15bn off local authority budgets, millions of food parcels have been handed out to working people and child poverty rose to a record high.
Does Mr Johnson's flagship "levelling speech solve the problems of the divided country he wanted so desperately to lead? Or is it just, as his former advisor Dominic Cummings would call it, just a "crap slogan"?
Here we take a look.
1. The education crisis post-Covid
Before the 2019 election, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that schools and colleges in England suffered the worst fall in spending since the depths of the 1970
An extra £4.3bn extra a year by 2022 committed by the Government would “just about reverse” the 8% cut in spending per pupil since 2009, it said.
But the the scale of lost learning brought about by the Covid pandemic has torn apart any notion of a level playing field in education.
Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have been especially hard-hit, with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) identifying "significantly lower achievement" for a majority of children and "a large concerning gap" between rich and poor.
A generation of children has lost learning due to lockdown
The Government appointed schools catch-up tsar Kevan Collins to oversee attempts to help kids catch-up and reach their potential.
But Mr Collins, who said the scale of the task could only be met with £15bn of public cash, dramatically quit when Chancellor Rishi Sunak was prepared to hand over an additional £1.4bn, saying the cash "does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge”.
Collins underlined: “In parts of the country where schools were closed for longer, such as the north, the impact of low skills on productivity is likely to be particularly severe."
2. Devolving power away from Whitehall
Local leaders frustrated with being forced to oversee cuts to their budgets imposed by central government have long been calling for more powers.
In getting behind "county deals" and empowered local mayors, Mr Johnson appeared to be on their side.
But there is a massive gap between the PM's rhetoric and the reality faced by town halls.
Councils have lost £15bn since 2010 and a TUC analysis projects that by 2025 the funding gap relative to 2010 will have grown to £25bn.
A separate study by them found that for every £100 for public services in 2010, only £86 in real terms was spent in 2020.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid in the Commons
Mr Johnson complained in his speech that the UK was "too centralised" and that power was too often exercised from Westminster.
But legislation the Government is currently pushing through Parliament directly contradicts his stated ambition.
The Health and Social Care Bill, characterised by Labour and Lib Dems as a "Tory power grab", hands Health Secretary Sajid Javid the right to intervene when NHS trusts are remodelling services.
The independent charity the Health Foundation said the proposal was “politically driven, has no clear rationale and risks taking health care backwards".
3. High streets and empty shops
The decline of the high street has been a growing problem for Government as retailers move online.
Around one in seven shops stand empty, a study by the British Retail Consortium said in April, and the North of England was by far hardest hit.
The areas with the highest vacancy rates were the North East (19.3%), Wales (19.2%), and North West (17.7%). London had the fewest empty shops at 10.7%, followed by the South East (12.7%) and East of England (14.1%).
The Centre for Retail Research, meanwhile, underlined how Covid was accelerating retail job losses, with 180,000 disappearing in the UK in 2020 (up by almost a quarter on the previous year). As the Covid pandemic continues, this year's figures are expected to dwarf last year's.
High streets are in crisis
(Image: NurPhoto/PA Images)
The Government solution has been the £3.6bn Towns Fund, which sees cash handed out to individual areas for special projects.
But it has been mired in claims of "pork barrel politics" with huge amounts used to spruce up Tory constituencies or target marginal seats. In March, for example, 39 of the 45 places to receive a share of the first £1bn went to areas with a Conservative MP.
While much of the funding is yet to be divvied up, the Government has a long way to go before it can prove the Towns Fund is "levelling up across the country".
4. Social care
When Mr Johnson took office two years ago, he promised to end social care injustice, vowing on the steps of Downing Street: “My job is to protect you or your parents or grandparents from the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the costs of care.”
Since then tens of thousands have sold their homes to pay for care and more than 40,000 care home residents have died of Covid.
Boris Johnson has no plan for social care
A study by the GMB union found that more than 130,000 people are trapped in social care debt and almost one in three unable to afford it.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said earlier this month that "quite soon" ministers would have "general sense of direction" on a plan for social care.
In 2020, adult social care spending in England was some £600m lower than in 2010.
The PM's speech on levelling up did not mention it once.
5. Pay and living standards
The PM referenced the need to pay trainee teachers more money, proposing a £30,000 starting salary.
But for many other key workers, salaries and quality of life has been hit hard since 2010.
Major groups of NHS workers will be much worse off in real terms in 2021-22 than in 2010, the TUC has found.
Nurses will earn £2,500 less in real terms than in 2010, for example.
The Government was lambasted for proposing a paltry 1% pay rise for NHS staff this year – following the Covid pandemic – though the independent pay review board is still reviewing what the pay rise should be.
Meanwhile, ministers are determined to cut £20-a-week from Universal Credit.
Katie Schmuecker, Deputy Director of Policy & Partnerships at the charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation questioned whether a "Government that intends to cut the incomes of the poorest families" in just a few weeks could "really claim to be levelling up" and urged the Sunak to U-turn.
She said: "Taking money out of the pockets of households that need it most by cutting Universal Credit makes no sense at all, and would suck money out of our recovery in the places that are most likely to struggle.
“Cutting Universal Credit would be a terrible mistake which would pull half a million more people into poverty. It’s not too late for the Prime Minister to change course and keep in place this lifeline which will give people across the country the chance of a better life.”
Separately, during his speech the PM made no commitment to new post-Brexit legislation for workers' rights – something Tory ministers had pledged as the UK exited the EU.
6. Rising child poverty
Child poverty remains a huge problem throughout the country.
Relative child poverty after housing costs rose from 3.6m when the Tories took office in 2010 to 4.2m in 2018/19.
In his speech about levelling up, the Government made no reference to child poverty.
7. Life expectancy and health
Last year life expectancy was found to have stalled for the first time in more than 100 years and even reversed for the most deprived women in society. Many have blamed austerity.
But the Government's £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund ignores health inequalities, the charity the Health Foundation has said.
Its study found that only half of local authorities in England with the lowest healthy life expectancy were placed in the list of highest-priority areas.
How did the Government defend the plans?
The PM’s spokesman said: “There’s a raft of policies in there that will benefit the public.
“We are talking about new county deals for new areas, we’re launching a £4.2bn city regeneration sustainable transport fund, we’ve got further new Town Deals for different areas, and the high street strategy includes a number of new proposals to benefit the public.”