Having ‘got Brexit done’, Boris Johnson’s number one priority was his much talked about levelling-up agenda.
The policy was designed to show the new Red Wall voters that he – and the Tories – were serious about tackling regional inequality in the country.
Levelling up took a back seat when coronavirus struck, but it is now firmly back on the agenda.
Earlier this month at the Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister declared the UK to be ‘not only one of the most imbalanced in the developed world, it is also one of the most centralised – and those two defects are obviously connected’.
He said the UK was lopsided, announcing a ‘levelling-up premium’ worth up to £3,000 to encourage science and maths teachers to head to different areas of the country.
Then came Chancellor Rishi Sunak who on Wednesday said levelling up was about ‘restoring the pride people feel in the places they call home’, adding that it would improve ‘the infrastructure of everyday life’ across the UK.
‘Levelling up is also about protecting our unique culture and heritage. The British Museum, Tate Liverpool, the York Railway Museum,’ he continued.
He also unveiled the first winners from the Levelling Up Fund, a £4.8billion spending pot that was announced in March’s Budget.
So far £1.7billion has been dished out to more than 100 infrastructure projects across the UK.
They are set to be completed over the next four years.
The biggest recipients were the North West and North East, Yorkshire and Humber, the Midlands and Scotland. London and the East of England received the least.
The projects vary in scale and size and although the fund was primarily designed for schemes costing up to £20m, some exceptions were made.
A new South Derby ‘growth zone’ and an upgrade to ferries to the Isles of Scilly both received nearly £50m from the fund.
Other successful bids included the reopening of the world’s oldest suspension bridge in County Durham, the redevelopment of Leicester train station and the Mersey Ferry service in Woodside on the Wirral.
In Scotland the stunning Inverness Castle will get a facelift, while £39m will be invested in transport links in Renfrewshire and £24m will be spent on improving the B714 road in North Ayrshire.
In Wales the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal World Heritage Site is to be revitalised.
While in Stoke alone there will be three projects.
They include two big housing projects to create 450 homes in the City centre and regenerating The Goods Yard site.
Noting that some funds were going to local authorities and constituencies represented by Labour MPs, Sunak quipped: ‘We are so committed to levelling up we’re even levelling up the Opposition front bench.’
Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield and a Red Wall Tory, said: ‘This has been long overdue. These are traditionally Labour constituencies which are getting investment from the Tories.
‘The industrial heartland is gone and these areas have struggled – we need better jobs, health and education.’
Anderson added that the Tories have also shown their commitment to the North with huge transport projects like the Northern Powerhouse Rail project, HS2 and the Teesside Freeport. Stephen Church, partner at professional services network EY, said: ‘Through the Budget and Spending Review the Government has pledged real action on the levelling-up agenda. We welcome the £4.8billion Levelling Up Fund, which has identified the first 105 places to receive funding for local transport.
‘This is crucial in order to help level up the economy, as the UK strives to tackle entrenched regional inequalities and close the skills gap.’
But the levelling-up agenda has proved divisive, particularly with Tory MPs who feel the Conservative Party is pandering too much to its new voter base in the Midlands and the North.
London received just £65m in funding for six projects, despite being home to some of the poorest parts of Europe.
Whitechapel Road in east London will receive £9m, while a music centre will be upgraded in southwest London.
The Centre for London thinktank said the capital received the lowest investment per capita of any part of the UK.
Whereas Wales received £38 per head from the fund, London received just £7.22.
According to Bob Neill, MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, the ‘levelling down’ of the South of England and London is a genuine fear which contributed to the heavy defeat of the Tories at the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June.
He said: ‘The election showed the Tories cannot take traditional Tory areas and voters for granted. Parts of London need levelling up and this should be done on need and not a geographic basis. I can see why it is being done – after the last election the Tories have to try and retain those votes in traditional industrial Labour areas.’