Tony Travers: Further cuts will undermine efforts to level up – Local Government Chronicle

With such severe cost pressures, what is the point of councillors anymore?
03 November 2022 By
People prefer local decision-making to ministers attempting to target pots of funding from Whitehall, writes the director of LSE London.
Political Christmas quizzes have been gifted for years to come with an array of fun-to-answer questions along the lines of “which cabinet member was in office for just two days between 5 and 7 July 2022?” or “How many prime ministers has Larry the Cat shared Downing Street with?”. The extraordinary chaos which gripped the UK government between July and October will be the subject of study for decades to come.

Tony Travers, director of LSE London
In this brief period there were three prime ministers, four chancellors of the exchequer and five education secretaries. Michael Gove went from DLUHC to DLUHC via 16 weeks on the back benches. Lee Rowley has become the 22nd housing minister since 1997. Butter manufacturers experience less churn than this.
In the middle of the most chaotic period of all during mid-October, the academic thinktank UK in a Changing Europe and King’s College, London published an excellent report about Mr Gove’s signature policy, levelling up. Or rather, about what people want from a policy of that name. Based on extensive polling and focus group research, the study provides a sophisticated analysis of what people with different political, economic and geographical characteristics think about their neighbourhoods and life chances.
The research showed “people tend to identify crime rates and the cost of transport as the things that have worsened most in their local area over the course of the last decade”. People across the country, with the exception of “inner city cosmopolitan areas” (mostly in London), think their area provides fewer opportunities for the young and offers fewer good jobs than elsewhere in England. Reducing crime is by a wide margin what people in poorer urban areas see as making their lives better.
The quality of high streets is symbolically important to people, though many think their local town centre is in decline. In the cosmopolitan inner city areas in cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester people see new independent shops, wine bars and restaurants. It is clear from the research that city centres, not just London, are seen as doing better than smaller towns and rural areas.
Local and other sub-national political leaders are far preferred to national ones. When the public is asked who most cares about their local area, local councillors are seen as most concerned (45%), followed by local MPs (37%). The “government in Westminster” scores just 9%. People far prefer local decision-making to ministers attempting to target pots of funding from Whitehall.
Reducing crime is by a wide margin what people in poorer urban areas see as making their lives better
The authors conclude: “A process excluding ministerial discretion is the most popular amongst respondents – something of a vote of no confidence in the existing system for levelling-up funds”. They add: “Despite being one of the key ‘levelling up’ priorities, cultural and heritage projects were less popular targets for spending amongst respondents than alternatives.”
In short, the allocation of dozens of small Whitehall grants to localities for minor capital investment projects is unlikely to deliver what the public expects from a levelling up policy. People want their local streets to be safe, clean and not to be full of boarded-up shops. The spending review to be published in mid-November will doubtless further cut spending on basic local services. Put simply, cuts to policing, street cleaning, graffiti removal, road maintenance and other neighbourhood provision will undermine government efforts to level up.
The prime minister is now attempting to convince the public he has regained a grip on the processes of government. Opinion polls show he has started to narrow Labour’s wide poll lead. How long it will take to deliver policy outcomes and eradicate the sense of chaos engendered in the early autumn of 2022 only time (and the next general election) will tell.
Tony Travers, director, LSE London
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