Level with us - how is closing the North-South divide going?

Levelling up is a new phrase to describe a very old problem.

By David Walsh
Monday, 1st March 2021, 7:00 am

The North-South divide has dogged the nation for decades, a century even, and it will take more than two words to close it.

But there’s no doubting its popularity.

Much like ‘Northern Powerhouse’, which it appears to have replaced, levelling up can be used in many scenarios, especially if you are the Prime Minister

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Miriam Cates Conservative MP for Stocksbridge and Penistone.

Most will agree it is a feel-good soundbite of great versatility.

But after that it gets tricky.

It is accepted the nation is unbalanced and unequal, with better paid and more jobs in the South, which receives more government funding and attracts more private sector investment. And it is a longstanding and deep-rooted problem.

But few can agree on how to fix it.

Sheffield MP Clive Betts.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Budget - when levelling up will be centre stage - The Star spoke to people on all sides of the debate.

“It has achieved nothing so far,” according to Sheffield MP Clive Betts, coming straight to the point.

The big differences between income and productivity - the value of goods or services produced by workers - in the North and South have not changed.

The value of work in Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle is less than the national average.

Clive Betts says the AMRC should be part of a national industrial strategy.

He added: “The impact of Covid will be greatest on the poorest people. That makes the levelling up agenda even more important.

“To be fair, the government has been distracted - but in the recovery period we need a long term, strategic plan and I’ve seen nothing so far.

“The odd pot of money that areas can bid for won’t level up. Funding for transport and tech infrastructure and skills is needed. The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre is a shining example of what can be achieved. It should be part of an industrial strategy.

"Executive director Steve Foxley has a 10-year plan - it should fit into much wider government policy to get more hi-tech jobs into the area.

Nick Fletcher, Conservative MP for Don Valley in Doncaster.

“I don’t think the Tories understand the power government has to help manufacturing and they don’t understand the North either.”

The region around Sheffield is home to six Conservative MPs after Labour’s Red Wall crumbled at last election.

They see levelling up as a success.

Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Stocksbridge and Penistone, said it didn’t have to be tangible or part of a grand strategy. It also meant everyone playing their part.

She added: “Levelling up is a phrase that should inspire everyone with a stake in society to play their part in building something sustainable and transformative.

“It acknowledges that there are geographic inequalities in the UK, and that we need to take practical action to spread opportunities more fairly.”

South Yorkshire Mayor Dan Jarvis is also a Barnsley Labour MP. Pic: Chris Etchells.

So it covered everything from huge infrastructure projects like HS2 - she supports the under threat eastern leg to Leeds being built in full - to improved bus links, investment in a leisure centre or a new post-16 education facility.

Stocksbridge has put in a £25m bid for a Town Deal, it has also received £500,000 to improve Oxley Park, while Penistone Paramount cinema received £95,000 from the Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund.

She added: “Of course we all want to see the major projects happen that will help to build the economy of the future in places like South Yorkshire.

“That is why I am campaigning for new passenger rail links, a South Yorkshire Freeport, and investment in high-value manufacturing industries. But we should also recognise the immense value of smaller projects that help to sustain communities and make life better for families in our area. That's what levelling up is all about.”

Another Tory, Doncaster MP Nick Fletcher, said the groundwork for levelling up the North had already begun.

Plans for 10 new ‘Freeports’ would bring thousands of jobs to Yorkshire and the Humber. The relocation of Government departments would spread talent and opportunity more evenly and the reform of the Treasury Green Book, which changed the funding critieria for infrastructure projects, would all benefit the North.

He added: “While excellent progress has already been made, as we recover from coronavirus, the Government will be able to double down on its exciting and transformative agenda."

South Yorkshire Mayor Dan Jarvis, who is also a Barnsley Labour MP, said he was pleased the government recognised the need for levelling up – although it was unable to define it.

And their approach seemed to be about ‘maximising the number of photo opportunities rather than actually tackling our problems’.

He added: “The Government has talked a lot about levelling up, but is unable to define what it means, and has no coherent plan to achieve it.

“In those circumstances, whatever additional spending they provide is unlikely to achieve the lasting change we need.

"South Yorkshire, like so many other parts of the North, faces deep seated, long-standing challenges that cut across a number of areas – not just productivity and infrastructure but health, education, skills and more.

“To tackle these, you need a plan that is adapted to the specifics of different regions, that is sustained over the long term, and is backed by a real increase in funding large enough to match the transformative ambition the government says it has.

"Instead, the government has majored on small, short-term, restricted pots of cash – like the Levelling Up Fund or the Towns Fund – that Northern leaders have to compete against each other to get.

“That makes strategic investment very difficult, advances Whitehall's agenda rather than ours, and is vulnerable to political interference. They've topped this up with some spending on national infrastructure priorities, which may or may not match our needs and whose distribution is unclear, while regional projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail are announced and re-announced without a single spade yet hitting the ground.”

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a digital subscription or buying a paper.

Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.