Levelling-up or rule by megalomaniac?

When your job-title is the slightly surreal “levelling-up secretary”, it must make sense to be working on a levelling-up white paper, especially in a country like England whose regional inequalities are worse than Germany’s just after the Iron Curtain came down.

Germany addressed its inequalities with vigour. Now it’s time for Michael Gove to do likewise.

But leaks to newspapers suggest he has a long way to go.

According to The Times, the white paper due this month is set to tinker yet again with local government, imposing more elected mayors, possibly covering counties and possibly called governors rather than mayors. Apparently Mr Gove has spoken approvingly of “an elected governor of Wiltshire”.

Also there’s talk of some work to transform town centres in “places that have been undervalued and overlooked for years”. Perhaps they plan to start undoing some of the damage permitted-development-rights and sprawl developments have done to town centres?

And finally perhaps there’ll be a new levelling-up quango to do what quangos normally do – insulate the minister from criticism following unpopular decisions. That’s about it.

The moves are confirmed in The Guardian too, so Government by leak is still alive and well. But it notes that, while devolution from London is now accepted as fundamental to levelling-up, Whitehall won’t countenance anything that strips it of power. Meanwhile the Treasury won’t accept anything that strips it of power over Whitehall.

Democracy, as ever, is the first casualty of such English power politics, as John Prescott found to his cost when trying to set up regional assemblies 20 years ago.

It sometimes looks as if the reason governments of all stripes of the past two decades have toyed with elected mayors is because sometimes it means their party seizes control of areas they wouldn’t normally expect to win. That still looks the case with Mr Gove’s plans.

Criticism of our archaic first-past-the-post voting continues to grow because it puts all power in the hands of one party. Elected mayors or governors are even less democratically inclusive; they not only put all the power in the hands of one party, they put it all in the hands of one man (it’s virtually always a man).

So please secretary of state, remember this. Your white paper is vital. It is needed to address the wretched economic disparities across England and put an end to the drivers of wealth southwards. You need to put a decisive end to initiatives like the Oxford-Cambridge Arc and all the other programmes designed to improve southern economies at the expense of the rest of the country.

Mr Gove sees the problems of the north for himself [DLUHC]

What the northern half of the country needs isn’t accelerated house building or elected mayors. It’s secure, reasonably rewarded jobs.

So maybe, Mr Gove, you could be remembered as the minister who began the painful process of bringing real economic regeneration to the north.

Or would you prefer to be remembered as the minister who imposed rule-by-megalomaniac across the country as a whole?

Jon Reeds