Reassuring his party, UK's Johnson says 'levelling up' is a "win-win"

·3-min read
Weekly question time debate in Parliament in London

By Alistair Smout and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday pledged investment to tackle inequality in parts of Britain, setting out his vision for a "levelling up" strategy which, in a nod to his party, he said would not damage more affluent areas.

Johnson, who won a large majority in a 2019 by targeting traditional opposition Labour-supporting voters in northern and central England, wants to return to one of the main pledges he made at the election to help "left-behind" areas of Britain.

In a speech which touched on crime, education, transport, housing and green technology, Johnson raised the prospect of devolving more power to smaller regions of Britain to speed up an agenda slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But critics said there were few specifics on how he will "level up" areas which have for decades felt ignored by successive governments, which have often targeted spending in southern England, beyond a broad theme of more investment.

"There is no intrinsic reason why one part of this country should be fated to decline or indeed fated to succeed," he said in a speech at the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in the central English city of Coventry.

"The towns and cities that people say have been left behind have not lacked for human ingenuity ... all they need is the right people to believe in them to lead them and to invest in them and for government to get behind them and that is what we are going to do."

But in a move to quieten concern in his governing Conservative Party that the government is abandoning its traditional voter support base in southern England, Johnson also said he did not "want to level down".

"Levelling up is not a jam-spreading operation, it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul, its not zero sum, it’s win-win for the whole United Kingdom."

Johnson said he could return focus to one of his flagship policies because, if careful, Britain could be over the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to what he called a wall of vaccination.

The British economy is dominated by London and the southeast and a 2020 report for the government found that gaps in economic productivity between the capital and other regions of Britain were as wide as they were in 1901.

Many governments have vowed, and failed, to bring more jobs and prosperity to the areas around the former industrial towns in northern England, and Johnson said he wanted to see local leaders work harder to attract more investment to create jobs.

But beyond a call to produce more of the raw materials for batteries in electric cars, critics say his plans lack detail. When asked about the lack of detail, Johnson said he had presented an outline of what his government would do and later his spokesman said he "gave a very clear explanation" of the strategy.

"Far from levelling up, it’s clear Boris Johnson is just making it up as he goes along," said Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey.

"This rambling speech does nothing for the millions of people who work hard and play by the rules but are still let down by this Conservative government."

(reporting by Alistair Smout, Elizabeth Piper and Kate Holton; Editing by Marguerita Choy, William Maclean)

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