In last year’s Autumn Statement, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt insisted the Government remains committed to levelling up and spreading opportunities across all areas of the UK. Hunt confirmed that the second round of the Levelling Up Fund would allocate at least £1.7 billion to priority local infrastructure projects, with successful bids announced before the end of the year.
The Statement also reiterated the commitment to giving more local areas ‘greater power to drive regional growth and tackle local challenges’, including delivering the commitment to agree to devolution deals with all areas in England that want one by the end of this decade.
Levelling Up was noticeably mentioned far more times in Hunt’s speech than in any speech given by his short-lived predecessor, Kwasi Kwarteng, or Truss herself – with this pair seeming relatively cool on Johnson’s flagship policy.
They were far keener on the idea of Investment Zones, with the goal of driving the UK’s economic growth and drastically speeding up the delivery of new housing and commercial developments.
Government guidance at the time said Investment Zones in England would be one or more specific sites within a Mayoral Combined Authority ‘where certain planning benefits, tax incentives and wider support for local growth will be available’.
The intention was for Investment Zones to work in tandem with Freeports, with the possibility for existing Freeports to apply to become Investment Zones.
However, Hunt’s speech revealed that the Government would ‘refocus’ the Investment Zones programme, using it to ‘catalyse a limited number of the highest potential knowledge-intensive growth clusters’. One way to do this would be by leveraging local research strengths.
The Government revealed that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will collaborate closely with mayors, devolved administrations, local authorities, businesses and other local partners to work out how best to identify and support these clusters.
The plan is to drive growth while maintaining ‘high environmental standards’. In the coming months, the first clusters will be announced, which means the existing expressions of interest will not be taken forward, the Government added.
In effect, the Investment Zones scheme has been scrapped and swallowed up into the wider Levelling Up agenda.
It’s undoubtedly the case that Sunak is more aligned with the idea of continuing the concept of levelling up, but as Johnson and his team found before them, saying you are going to level up the country and actually achieving that are two very different things.