Hunt redefines ‘levelling up’ with focus on Cambridge, Canary Wharf and Surrey

Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs in Greater London

The redefinition of “levelling up” by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in his recent budget has sparked both praise and criticism, with the geographical scope of the term expanding to include areas beyond the traditional focus on northern towns and cities.

Hunt’s budget highlighted new devolution deals for regions like Surrey and Buckinghamshire, signaling a shift towards addressing underinvestment in areas previously overlooked in discussions of levelling up. Additionally, a substantial investment of £242 million was earmarked for housing development in Barking Riverside and Canary Wharf, with the aim of attracting life sciences firms to the financial district of east London.

Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron sarcastically praised the inclusion of Canary Wharf as a beneficiary of levelling up efforts, highlighting the changing landscape of the once-thriving business district. Hunt also pledged increased government support for future development in Cambridge, indicating a broader approach to promoting growth and innovation beyond traditional northern regions.

However, the announcement of £100 million in levelling up funding drew criticism from levelling up researcher Abi O’Connor at the New Economics Foundation (NEF). O’Connor argued that the government’s piecemeal funding approach pits poorer communities against each other and fails to address systemic regional inequality. She also raised concerns about the distribution of benefits from the national insurance cut, suggesting that higher earners in London and the south-east would disproportionately benefit.

Despite the criticism, conservative think tanks like Onward welcomed the levelling up announcements, emphasizing the importance of stimulating economic growth and fostering an optimistic vision for the future. The challenge now, according to Sebastian Payne, Director of Onward, is to ensure that investments in towns, new devolution deals, and measures to boost innovation effectively contribute to narrowing regional disparities and promoting inclusive economic development.