Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien rightly see two speeds to their levelling-up strategy. Firstly, long-term economic policies to extend opportunities to the young and those in need of new career options. Secondly, short-term, primarily social policies that improve life in towns and cities and boost civic pride.
Along with an excellent team in Downing Street (who are quietly doing a really great job on civic pride), Gove’s officials are now considering which policies would make the most differences on everything from housing policy to productivity. However, as they do, the voice of the public is crucial in shaping these policies. While most people can’t formulate specific policies, their views are useful in conceptualising these policies in broad terms.
Having followed this debate for a long-time, I thought it would be interesting to test public attitudes to all this. Public First has therefore just concluded a comprehensive new landscape poll that probes public attitudes to short-term and long-term challenges.
It’s the most detailed quantitative research we’ve conducted yet on levelling-up and we take a particularly detailed look at actual policy options the Government might take. I’ll do a more detailed look at the research and the various cross breaks another time, but today I briefly cover the main implications for the Government. You can find a link to the full results here.
Who does the levelling-up strategy appeal most to? Our poll confirms it has general appeal, even though when pushed people say it’s primarily for former industrial towns in the North of England. Nearly two thirds of our sample said they believed their own local area needed levelling-up – and middle class voters were almost as likely to say their area needed levelling-up as working class voters.
However, it’s clear the levelling-up narrative – particularly the civic pride element – will be more intensely felt by working class voters. They are more likely to say their town or city has got worse in the last ten years and they are less likely to say they’re proud of where they live, as are over 65s (the very people who talk most about the decline of their towns in the groups). In working class communities there is an immense feeling of wounded civic pride.
When we asked directly what builds civic pride and what has undermined it – giving people a very wide range of options – people are clear: it’s ultimately about the quality of shared spaces and the public streetscape. So (along with “the people”), civic pride is built by parks (by far), historic buildings and the high street – the places where people spend time together. And what undermines civic pride is anti-social behaviour, the decline of the high street and general litter and disrepair.
Downing Street’s team know the importance of anti-social behaviour to levelling-up but it’s yet to be pushed hard by politicians. Given a list of options to level-up areas by tackling crime and anti-social behaviour, the most popular answer was getting people who had committed crimes to clean graffiti and pick up litter.
Ask people about levelling-up policies without prompting in focus groups and high streets totally dominate. However, when we put a range of options before them in the poll, economic policies came to the fore. Given a broad range of options the Government might take, helping people retrain in areas where industry has declined comes top, followed by encouraging business investment into particular areas (yes, a generic policy concept).
Elsewhere, asked generally what the Government should prioritise, creating more local jobs and encouraging business investment came top – well above high streets. However, it’s important to put the power of the economic message into perspective: productivity, a major preoccupation of the Levelling-Up Department, came bottom of the list of options in the first question above. Perhaps it would be fairer to say therefore that simple economic policy concepts are the most persuasive.
A few months ago, some interesting research I did for Green Alliance showed people in former industrial areas were surprisingly positive about the prospect of new, green technologies replacing industries of the past. And the same was true in this poll: given a list of options for the Government to encourage investment outside the South-East, overall the most popular was “developing expertise in green technologies in those areas that have lost traditional manufacturing”.
Admittedly, it was more popular amongst middle class voters, but it was still popular amongst working class voters (who preferred the option of financial to support to relocate for work). Past groups suggest this is explained by a feeling both that green jobs are a moral good but also because they’re viewed as modern and “future-proof”.
Odd as it might be, in my experience devolution is not yet viewed as a pre-requisite for success on levelling-up. Consequently, perhaps, the most successful economic policy option for local areas was Central Government moving jobs outside London. However, essentially equally popular was allowing cities to cut taxes to encourage business investment (this was the most popular amongst working class voters).
And another question – this time on what powers local government might have – showed the most popular option was holding more local referendums. These are two options that many local governments might run a mile from. Regardless, they hint at a certain interest in a more dynamic and disruptive devolution settlement.
The poll is all encouraging and offers some useful pointers to the Government. However, a final note to finish on: despite widespread support for the Government’s attempts to level-up, half the sample said they were not confident the Government would succeed, compared to under a quarter who said they were confident. Whether this means the public will think there are better priorities in time or whether they just think it’s all worth trying, time will tell.