Michael Gove is quietly taking the power to abandon the key tests of whether his levelling up strategy is working by arguing they are “no longer appropriate”.
A Bill that “enshrines our levelling up missions in law” has been hailed as proof that the targets – to improve pay, jobs, transport connectivity and other indicators in less-prosperous areas – have real teeth.
But the text of the legislation reveals the government will be able to change or drop its chosen benchmarks – without consultation – if they are proving difficult to achieve.
Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow levelling up secretary, accused the government of preparing to move the goalposts if they look likely to fail on their own tests.
“So if Tory ministers are missing the targets they set for themselves and are putting into law themselves, they can just… change them?” she tweeted.
The IPPR North thinktank has attacked the plan for the “government to self-report on their own levelling up missions” as inadequate.
“This Bill should establish, in statute, a new independent body outside of London to hold the whole of government to account against legally binding levelling up missions,” said Zoë Billingham, its director.
The Bill reads that a promised annual progress report “may state that Her Majesty’s Government no longer intends to pursue that mission, instead of dealing with the matters mentioned”.
As well as changing “methodology and metrics”, ministers will also have the power to alter the “target date” of 2030 for measuring success – already criticised as being too distant.
All they will be required to do is “publish a statement setting out the reasons” for any changes and “lay the revised statement before parliament”.
The 12 missions – once described as “aspirational” by Mr Gove, the levelling up secretary – have already been criticised for largely being vague, unambitious, or impossible to measure.
The flagship policy has also been undermined by Rishi Sunak’s refusal to commit to any extra spending, despite the many ‘Red Wall’ Tories in vulnerable marginal seats in the North and Midlands.
Unveiling the legislation, Mr Gove said: “This Bill puts in place the reforms we need to level up.
“It enshrines our levelling up missions in law, which will shift resources and focus throughout this decade to the parts and people of the country who need it most.”
The Levelling Up Bill will also pave the way for more devolution deals, granting local authorities new powers to bring empty premises back into use and extend al fresco dining.
And neighbours will hold referendums over whether new homes and conversions should go ahead on their street, or even over the style and size of extensions.