Michael Gove, in his new role as the cabinet’s major-domo and minister in charge of “levelling up”, is about to expend large amounts of intellectual and political capital attempting to close the gap between the south-east and everywhere else.
Levelling up, as we are told repeatedly by No 10, will be the defining achievement of the Johnson administration and 2022 is the year that efforts to transform the much-neglected regions begin to gather pace. With this in mind, Gove is about to publish a white paper that outlines how the government plans to tackle this gargantuan task.
So far the prospects for a major commitment across Whitehall are looking slim. The chancellor, for one, wants to make sure that whatever Gove wants comes with no new cash attached. Recycling is popular in government, especially when it concerns money.
Gove’s response appears to be a renewed focus on the bureaucracy supporting the regions. He has floated a scheme to fill the geographical gaps between the metro mayors who run most of England’s big city regions with a new concept of US-style regional governors.
There is no suggestion of mimicking the neo-colonial mini-White Houses that host governors in most US state capitals – just a network of elected chiefs able to reduce regional inequalities and drive growth around the country.
Gove’s mistake here is his apparent determination to join the list of reformers who focus more on structures than desired outcomes.
One advantage he can claim as he prepares to confront the many entrenched and powerful interests in the shires (which dominate the Conservative party apparatus and will object to governors) is the lack of agreement among political opponents on an alternative to whatever structure he puts forward.
Labour and the thinktanks that feed ideas to shadow ministers agree on one thing – that extra funds and power should be devolved away from Whitehall. But they have not found an alternative system of local democracy to coalesce around since John Prescott’s proposal for regional assemblies was crushed in a referendum held in north-east England more than 25 years ago.
And there is good reason. As Prescott found out, extra layers of government appear to the public as civil-service employment schemes. Even sharp-shooting governors can quickly look like jobsworths to those who see themselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.
Labour is rightly more concerned with issues that Gove wants to sidestep, such as how to foster more productive regional economic engines based on a collaboration of public and private capital.
The access to private capital in England’s north-east, north-west and south-west, where a lack of finance cripples businesses’ ambitions, is so much more important than having a go-getting governor.
And what about health outcomes and education, which have improved by leaps and bounds in London and the south-east over the last 20 years, while standards have stagnated or gone backwards in other parts of the country?
From George Osborne’s elected mayors to Gove’s planned overhaul, debates about the efficient and functional management of English territory have always taken precedence over questions such as how to determine and represent local political identities in a way that increases levels of participation, accountability and legitimacy. These issues underpin economic success because they give individuals and communities a sense of respect and control.
Gove wants the eventual model for the whole country to be London, which, he says, under Labour and Conservative mayors has set out strategic goals, giving coherence to the revitalisation and regeneration of large parts of the capital.
The latest of those mayors, Sadiq Khan, says these statements ring hollow. He told the Observer: “The government is saying to all other parts of the country they will have a London-style transport system. But London doesn’t have a London-style transport system and that is because these days the government is micro-managing what we can and can’t do.
“Whether you are Andy Burnham or Andy Street, Jamie Driscoll in the north-east or Dan Jarvis in Sheffield, it is clear more powers should be devolved. But the control freakery of the government, with ministers hoarding power rather than giving it away, is overwhelming.”
Economic studies show that only a greater degree of autonomy can generate higher and more sustainable growth rates, and that such progress is only seen over long periods of time. So why should anyone put their faith in governors when the template for them, the London mayor, is cut off at the knees, denied not only the cash needed to do anything meaningful, but with Whitehall breathing down his neck?
If Gove cannot enhance local democracy and accept all that it entails, then governors and much else he proposes will be window dressing for an administration that is levelling down.