THE Government is under a “moral obligation” to spread investment and opportunities more fairly across the country so that people can “stay local but go far”, the minister in charge of levelling up told The Northern Echo on his first visit in his new job.

“You shouldn’t have to leave somewhere you love in order to have a truly fulfilling career - that’s part of what levelling up is about,” said Michael Gove yesterday.

He was only appointed a week ago, and his first visit yesterday was to the former red wall area of the Tees Valley where the “levelling up” concept proved so crucial in winning over the Labour heartlands.

However, nearly two years after Boris Johnson’s election victory, critics say levelling up is a slogan without substance.

“Levelling up is about making opportunities more equal,” said Mr Gove, standing on Darlington’s “golden mile” with the new-builds of the college on one side and Teesside University on the other, plus new lab space for pharmaceutical and chemical companies.

“In the past too much economic growth, too many jobs, have been in London and the south east.

“Levelling up is both a moral obligation to make sure people from every background have the same opportunities but it is also good for the economy of the country overall.”

In recent months, following by-elections in the south, there has been a feeling that the Conservatives needed to rein in the perception that they are favouring the newly-won north so they retain their traditional support in the shires.

With a touch of New Labour on his tongue, Mr Gove said: “We only succeed if we all succeed. Any country is in a stronger position if you are making the most of every talent, so if there are talented people in the Tees Valley who don’t get the opportunities they deserve, it holds us all back.

“The second thing is we want to make sure that some of the pressures you see in the south-east as a result of the economic growth are relieved, and you do that by making sure there are more reasons for more people to live and work and make a success of their lives in other parts of the country.”

He had been struck by a slogan he’d spotted on his rapid visit to the university’s new lab space.

The Northern Echo:

“In the National Horizons Centre, we saw ‘staying local and going far’. People are strongly attached to their communities, they love where they live, they just deserve the opportunity to have great jobs and a great future there.”

Levelling up was a slogan coined, and championed, by Boris Johnson in 2019. In his Cabinet reshuffle last week, he created the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to put some weight behind the slogan, and appointed Mr Gove – seen as one of the Government’s best performers – to lead it.

However, Mr Gove didn’t provide detailed targets by which levelling up can be judged a success – such as greater transport spending or improved health outcomes.

“If you are going to improve productivity and life chances, there’s no single ingredient or silver bullet,” he said. “Making sure investment is spread more equitably across the country is critical, but also making sure that you have strong local leaders is critical.

“People used to think of this part of the North East as a Labour heartland but Labour didn’t deliver. Now you have Conservative MPs, a mayor and government doing what I think people have wanted to see for some time: bringing the power and investment of central government and making sure it works in a local way, so it’s bottom up not top down.

“You need to see local leaders in power so that people who live and are rooted in that community are in control of that community.”

This perhaps gives Mr Gove a little wriggle room because “levelling up” can mean whatever local leaders want it to mean. After his visit to Darlington, where “levelling up” means investment in skills and learning, as well as the relocation of Treasury jobs, he went to Teesworks at Redcar, where “levelling up” means creating new, green jobs on Europe’s largest brownfield site.

In Darlington, he visited a jobs fair at the college organised by the town’s MP, Peter Gibson.

“I call this Darlington’s new golden mile, from the station to Yarm Road,” said Mr Gibson. “The skills that we are investing here are a real symbol of levelling up.”