“The UK is an unequal nation”: Local leaders on the "levelling up" agenda

Leaders from Sheffield City Region, the North of Tyne Combined Authority, Leeds City Council, and the West Midlands Combined Authority on what their local economies need.

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The UK's regional inequality is one of the worst in the developed world. Large towns and cities in the south and south east of England are more productive and prosperous than those in the Midlands and the north. The latter face a greater struggle following deindustralisation and underinvestment in key sectors and infrastructure, as the Centre for Cities think tank has highlighted. 

Following its 2019 election win, Boris Johnson's government has promised that its “levelling up” agenda will inject funding into jobs, education, transport, and scientific research to rebalance the ecoonomy. But what is really needed to "level up" the regions and ensure economic development across the country? Senior figures from local authorities told Spotlight about what their regions need.

Jamie Driscoll, Metro Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority

Levelling up is just a slogan. What we’re talking about here is power and wealth. And very little of that sits in the North of Tyne. Government departments are all based in London. So are most corporate HQs.

That will only change when regional mayors get the powers to shape policy for their regions. That means serious fiscal devolution. Not piddling top-ups like hotel tourist taxes. I want to create wealth, not tax poverty.

Let mayors borrow at base rate. I’d create a £500m Regional Wealth Fund to close the private sector investment gap between our region and the south-east. It creates jobs and increases tax take.

When we build a new £100m metro light rail extension, the land around it shoots up in value by at least that much. Land Value Capture as a legal power would enable regions to deliver sustainable growth at pace. A Transport for London-style system creates opportunity, tackles obesity and is climate-friendly.

The government must “invest to save”. Devolved, upfront funding for better schools, adult skills education, transport and housing will increase health and productivity and pay itself back manifold. Levelling up means richer, healthier people, where no one is left behind.

Read more: Andy Burnham: “The problem now is, to a large degree, the Chancellor”

Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds City Council

There is little doubt the UK now faces some of the most ominous economic challenges in living memory. Recovering from the seismic impact of Covid-19 at a local and national level, coupled with the inevitable changes the UK’s exit from the EU will bring, means a whole new era of cooperation and innovation is needed.

If we are going to meet these daunting challenges and have a chance to truly level up the country, it is imperative that Yorkshire is fully supported to maximise its vast economic potential, and is enabled to play its part in the nation’s recovery and future growth.

For that to happen, we need major and systemic improvements to our transport infrastructure, particularly rail, parts of which were built more than a century ago and have held northern England back for far too long.

It is also absolutely crucial the promise of more devolved powers is honoured. This would empower regions such as Yorkshire to raise living standards, improve local skills and training, and provide more support for those local businesses hit hardest by the pandemic.

Read more: Why Labour needs to get serious about radical devolution

Julia Goldsworthy, Director of Economy and Strategy, West Midlands Combined Authority

Securing HS2 earlier this year was a big deal for the West Midlands – even if February feels like ancient history. And it matters that the Prime Minister chose Dudley as the location for his “Build, Build, Build” speech this summer.

These infrastructure projects are more than bricks and mortar – we are already training the engineers and supporting the apprentices that will deliver them, and our businesses are tapping into new contracts and opportunities.

But levelling up is about more than capital infrastructure. While the slogan might be a recent invention, it is hardly a new concept to the West Midlands, where the formation of the Combined Authority itself was founded on the shared ambition to fulfil the region’s potential and address our biggest challenges by working together.

Never has this been more important. Covid has laid bare the stark inequalities in our region in health, wealth and opportunity. Our public services are doing an amazing job of coping with increased pressures, but to shift the dial we need investment and innovation.

The importance of local leadership is now crystal clear. We need to move to a new way of working between Whitehall and the West Midlands, and we need government to back us and give us the tools we need to deliver. We can’t afford to wait.

Read more: “Whatever it takes”: Has the government broken its promises to local councils?

Dan Jarvis, Member of Parliament for Barnsley Central and Mayor of the Sheffield City Region

The UK is an unequal nation. We have the greatest disparity between regions of any major developed country in the world.The results of this inequality are felt every day and mean if you live in northern England, you are more likely to earn less, experience long-term employment and die younger. The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to make that worse.

The North has been hit disproportionately hard by this pandemic because of existing weaknesses. We have more workers in vulnerable sectors and fewer able to work remotely. Now, we’re bearing the brunt of local lockdowns. Rather than levelling up, the brutal reality is that we are on course for levelling down.

The government needs to understand that levelling up will only mean something when it is backed up with substantial investment to improve infrastructure, education and health. We cannot wait any longer, but this isn’t just about money.

To be effective, a plan for levelling up should also deliver the meaningful devolution of powers and resources to every nation, region, city and town across the UK.

No one in the North has forgotten about the Prime Minister’s promise. Levelling up must be more than just a slogan. Instead of being a reason to delay, the current crisis is the most powerful argument for getting on with it.

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on regional development. Click here for the full edition. 

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