The MP, former Treasury aide and chair of the UK’s Levelling Up Taskforce has been hired to advise Whitehall on its strategy to shore up areas of the country lagging behind others in economic growth and prosperity.
Neil O’Brien is Conservative MP for Harborough, and served as a special adviser to former chancellor George Osborne and ex-prime minister Theresa May. He has been appointed by to oversee the ‘levelling up’ policy that has been a key but much-criticised promise of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration.
When Johnson was elected in December 2019, he vowed to ‘level up’ the country by reducing regional economic disparities, especially between Northern and Southern England. Policy moves such as the creation of a £4bn Levelling Up fund to support regional infrastructure growth – announced in last November’s Spending Review – a review of the Treasury’s Green Book to balance project funding decisions away from London and the South East, and the creation of an infrastructure bank to be based in Leeds, have all been part of the levelling up programme.
However, critics say more than a year into Johnson’s rule the programme has failed to achieve tangible results. A report by think tank Centre for Cities in January warned that the pandemic would make levelling up in challenged areas of the country almost four times harder than it would have been otherwise.
More recently, the policy has been deemed critical to the re-election of Tories in so-called ‘red wall’ seats across England. Surprise gains were made for the Conservatives in the North West in the 2019 election, with the Tories adding 12 seats in what has traditionally been a Labour heartland. Losses for Labour included Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham’s former seat in Leigh, Warrington South, Bury South and North, Burnley, and Blackpool South.
Johnson at the time pledged to repay the trust of many of those first-time Conservative voters by creating new economic opportunities in those areas. “Those people want change,” he said. “We cannot, must not, let them down.”
However, concerns are emerging within Whitehall that few people understand the ‘levelling up’ slogan and it has failed to benefit the regions. O’Brien’s role as Government advisor on levelling up will be to clarify the message and the key strands of the programme and ensure it delivers on its goals.
He currently chairs the Levelling Up Taskforce, a group of 40 MPs representing seats around the country. It published a report last September noting that income per person in London (before paying taxes and receiving benefits) grew two-thirds faster than the rest of the country between 1997 and 2018 – equating to income growth 70% higher in London than the rest of the country, up from 30 per cent higher in 1997.
Launching the report at the time, O’Brien said: “Many of the places we won have felt neglected for a long time. And led from the front by the Prime Minister, the new Government has committed to “levelling up” poorer places. But what does that really mean? How can we measure if we are succeeding? How can we get the private sector growing faster in these places, making the country stronger overall?
“[The taskforce is intended] to help the Government answer these questions.”