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The Policy Ask with Zoë Billingham: “Make reducing regional inequality a legal requirement”

The director of think tank IPPR North on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, energy company profits and the Levelling Up bill.

By Spotlight

Zoë Billingham is based in Liverpool and is director of IPPR North, a think tank dedicated to strengthening the north of England. She previously led the Centre for Progressive Policy where she advised national and local leaders on regional inequality and, before this, worked as a senior policy adviser in HM Treasury and an economic policy adviser to former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

How do you start your working day?

A strong cup of tea and a read of the regional and national news. I’m a total news addict thanks to a decade working in policy and politics.

What has been your career high?

Successfully persuading central government to go big on underwriting local government during the pandemic. Local leaders are repeatedly expected to deliver support to those who need it most under immense financial strain.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Working in HM Treasury on EU negotiations when the UK voted for Brexit. It was the moment I realised just how detached the Westminster bubble can be from the views of the rest of the country and that I was part of it. That’s when I knew I had to leave central government.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Be patient and accept that progress isn’t linear. Change doesn’t happen overnight and you need stamina to achieve it.

Which political figure inspires you?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US is my millennial political inspiration. She is an exceptional communicator, a highly effective campaigner, whilst also being all over the detail of policy and politics. And our Northern metro mayors, of course, for making the most of their scant powers and budgets.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The government was right to bring in a windfall tax on energy companies this year. Excess profits have been made as energy bills have skyrocketed for the rest of us. There is still much to do.

And what policy should the UK government ditch?

The government needs to stop treating spending on social infrastructure, such as education and skills, like a cost. It’s an investment in our future and yet this accounting sleight of hand totally skews how decisions are made in government.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill currently going through Parliament. It’s far from perfect but it is our best chance yet to embed reducing regional inequalities into the heart of government decision making. And MPs have the chance now to influence it.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

It’s almost a cliché to say it, but there’s plenty we can learn from the reunification of Germany about reducing regional inequality. Sustained, substantial intervention, designed to outlast political change and with a quick devolution of power from the centre. The government has the tools to make it happen.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

Make reducing regional inequality a legal requirement on government. It’s the inequality the public now care most about and the right thing to do.

[ See also: Lisa Nandy: “I disliked the cults around Blair and Corbyn: one man doesn’t change things” ]

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