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What do metro mayors think of levelling up?

The long-awaited white paper promised clarity on the government's core mission. Below, our symposium gives the verdicts of regional and local leaders.

By Jonny Ball

In February of this year we saw the delayed publication of Levelling Up the UK, the government’s blueprint for tackling the most extreme regional inequalities of any country in the OECD.

Many have commended the government’s diagnoses and its recognition of long-standing and deep-rooted structural factors at play, as well as its commitment to further devolution. Twelve ambitious “missions” set out the criteria for success, which included: increasing pay and productivity, fixing the skills and education gap, spreading R&D subsidies more evenly, reducing health inequalities, reducing crime and increasing home ownership.

But there’s much disagreement over the efficacy of some of the document’s suggested remedies. The white paper listed a broad selection one-off competitive funds and infrastructure projects that had already been announced. Promises to move bigger chunks of the civil service out of Whitehall were reiterated. Many pointed out that new resources were lacking, and that much of the 300-page document was made up of rehashed older policies from different government departments, tied together under the levelling up package.

Part of the proposals centred on expanding devolution deals and establishing elected mayors to every part of the country that wants one. So to see how the white paper was received on the ground across the UK, Spotlight gauged the reaction of the ten existing metro mayors.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester

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There was a lot to welcome in the ambition of the Levelling Up White Paper, which has put regional inequality at the heart of our political debate. And there were lots of areas where we have shared goals – for example to deliver a London-style transport system, to improve housing in the private rented sector, and to ‘double down’ on devolution. The question is whether the Levelling Up Secretary can bring colleagues with him. As he has said, levelling up is a ‘whole of government’ agenda. Just a few weeks ago we saw a Spring Statement where levelling up barely featured. We stand ready to play our part, I hope ministers across government will do too.

Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire

There’s lots of ambition, but the real test will be whether government delivers on its promises to give local leaders the freedoms, flexibilities, funding and tools we need to deliver for our communities to improve the lives of everyone in our region. The white paper rightly identifies the potential of transport-led regeneration, but then the Integrated Rail Plan denied West Yorkshire the opportunity to inject billions of pounds into our economy. Meanwhile, the constant competitive beauty contests for small amounts of money restricts our long-term planning. We need a proper commitment from everyone in government, not just a single champion.

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

Levelling up the UK must not be about levelling down London and withholding the funding and investment our capital city desperately needs. London has some of the most deprived communities in the country and they deserve support and funding just as much as other parts of the UK. If the Government truly wants to show its commitment to levelling-up, it is also vital that it commits to properly funding the urban transport networks on which our towns and cities rely, including Transport for London.

(Adapted from a February press release)

Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of the North of Tyne

Levelling up needs cash, not concrete. The North has been woefully underfunded for years. Government data shows a £61 billion gap in investment in London and investment in the North in the five years from 2014-15. The south-east is home to only a third of our country’s population but almost half of the UK economy. The levelling up missions are sound. But northern Mayors need financial powers to secure the scale of investment needed, to shape regional policy, and to help turn Britain into a high-wage, high-skill economy. Without radical fiscal devolution – federalism, even – the political will won’t exist. You can’t level up with a few new buildings and some train tracks leading back to the Capital. You need to write a cheque.

Dan Jarvis, Outgoing Mayor of South Yorkshire

The government’s white paper is a step in the right direction – but without the means to achieve the positive ambition it sets out. We welcome moves to create London-style powers across England, devolve more control over skills, and to spread R&D and culture spending more evenly around the country. But the paper is missing the means to achieve the goals it sets out. Its 12 ‘missions’ are great aspirations – but their lion-like ambition is matched with mouse-like resources. The money is almost all recycled, and often less than the funds it replaces. This white paper gets some things right, but after the election the Conservatives fought on the promise that levelling up would be their ‘defining mission’, many people will be left asking themselves – is this it?

(Adapted from a February press release)

Dr Nik Johnson, Mayor of Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authority

Levelling Up is not just for the North. If the white paper is to be the devolution success that the government wants, it must be as relevant to the rural communities of Cambridgeshire’s Wisbech as to those of ‘red wall’ Widnes. The systemic change needs to be delivered intra-regionally just as crucially as inter-regionally.

However, the rising tide which is to lift all boats can only succeed if the hulls of the boats are not already fatally holed. We need to recognise that decades of widening inequality has been a disaster for growth. A “3 Cs” approach, for compassion, cooperation and community, is what is now required to mend the underbelly of HMS United Kingdom.

Dan Norris, Mayor of the West of England

I love the West of England and want it to be the best it can be. But to do that we need more than slogans from the government. We need an understanding that in areas of relative prosperity there are pockets of severe need. I need more resources but more crucially levers of power. Some of that’s pretty basic and could be fixed overnight – for example, it’s bonkers to be in charge of buses but not bus stops! We need London-style devolution, accountability and powers, and then I absolutely believe my region and others will be able to be an engine for UK success.

Steve Rotheram, Mayor of Liverpool City Region

Despite having nearly three years to define ‘levelling up’, the white paper showed that the government is still severely short on ideas to make it actually mean anything. Although there were a few encouraging elements, it was largely a rehashing of old concepts. More disappointing was the fact that it seemed to have been written more in consultation with the Westminster bubble than with local leaders. True levelling up must tackle structural inequalities. We need good jobs, decent wages, affordable housing, action to combat the cost-of-living crisis, and opportunities for young people. The white paper accepted that principle but offered no plan or resources to get there.

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands

The West Midlands shows Levelling Up in action. From the £1.05 billion transport funding settlement, to the millions received for brownfield-first regeneration, as well as a fully devolved Adult Education Budget upskilling people on our patch, we’re delivering tangible results on the ground. We are truly an exemplar region for this government’s defining mission. The announcement in the Levelling Up White Paper that the West Midlands will be one of only two regions chosen to pursue a new trailblazer devolution deal is a tremendous vote of confidence in our local track record and an encouraging sign for our forthcoming negotiations.

Ben Houchen, Mayor of Tees Valley, declined to comment.

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