Hannah Miller: Why this week, the ITV regions in the North of England came together

By Hannah Miller, Political Correspondent at ITV Granada Reports

Ever since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister he’s promised to ‘level up’ the regions. The phrase came second only to ‘Get Brexit Done’ during the Conservative election campaign. Even in the context of Covid-19, ministers have continued to pepper their speeches and interviews with the promise of a better future for the regions. 

But what is ‘levelling up’? An amorphous idea that somehow straddles every aspect of our lives, and to the public can mean either everything and nothing. 

Today, the Treasury Select Committee wrote that ‘in order to prevent ‘levelling up’ becoming an empty slogan, the Government should produce a strategy underpinning it that defines clear objectives and includes the indicators it will use to gauge success.’ The report says Government should ‘clarify whether it plans to close productivity, health outcomes and education outcomes gaps, and how it intends to do so.’ 

A group of 40 Conservative MPs say the same. This week they launched a ‘levelling up task force’ calling on the Government to be more specific about how it would define success. They insist they are fighting for their constituents, critics suggest they are battling to keep Number 10’s eye on the ball.

On its pledge to ‘level up’, our poll found that 67% of people in the North of England are not confident the Government will deliver. People have heard promises of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ (George Osborne), the pledge to tackle ‘burning injustices’ (Theresa May) - they perhaps know better than to put too much hope in the idea that any Government will be able to overcome entrenched inequalities that have been around for decades.

But while there is no doubt that Covid-19 has made ‘levelling up’ harder, it has also exposed how vital it is. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic in Northern England is a clear demonstration of the differing circumstances in which people live.

Our research found that in areas where the Conservatives won seats from Labour at the last election it has become proportionately harder to find a job, and looked at the availability of catch-up tutors in the North. 58% of people surveyed said the pandemic will have a negative impact on the next generation's prospects - an illustration of the long-term challenge ahead.

Out in Bury, a seat the Conservatives won from Labour at the last election, it was difficult to find anyone who had changed their mind on Boris Johnson since the last election. Those who voted for the Conservatives were likely to excuse what they see as inevitable mistakes by a well-intentioned Government dealing with an unprecedented crisis. Those who liked Boris Johnson before still like him now, those who didn’t, still don’t. 

For now many people feel the Government has been dealt a bad hand and is doing its best. But we have a long way to go until the effects of the pandemic are through. A spokesperson told us ‘the entire force of Government continues to be committed to ‘levelling up’ the regions’. It is encouraging that the idea is still on the agenda, the decisions politicians take next will define whether it becomes a reality. 

Listen to From the North: Levelling Up podcast here

Join presenter and ITV Granada Reports Political Correspondent Hannah Miller, along with ITV Tyne Tees & Border Political Correspondent Tom Sheldrick, and ITV Calendar's Political Correspondent Harry Horton as they ask just what the Government is doing, and will "levelling up" ever really happen?