The Budget is the moment for 'real action' to level up the North
Local politicians must be bolder and use all the leverage they have to level up the North, an expert claims.
South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis, who has significant devolved powers and cash, and council leaders can hesitate on projects that might make the region more attractive to investors, according to Simon Jeffrey of independent think tank Centre for Cities.
Increased private sector investment, alongside more public spending, are key to closing the North-South divide. That gap is wider than ever after 10 years of austerity, a pandemic and Brexit. And it is top of the agenda in the Budget on Wednesday.
The Star spoke to people on both sides of the debate and those in the neutral corner, including Mr Jeffrey.
He said HS2 is a ‘distraction’. High speed rail - so often held up as a vital rebalancing project - will take at least two decades to come to the North. But existing rail services are ‘good’ and no barrier to growth.
Instead, he says, smaller issues can play a bigger part in attracting businesses that create jobs.
An attractive city centre - Sheffield’s is one of the ‘weakest’ in the North - a good environment and frequent, reliable public transport, for example.
He said: “HS2 would be nice to have but it’s a distraction. It’s position in levelling up is far outside the barriers to people being to get a job, or a pay rise, or promotion.
“A solution is better bus services controlled by Dan Jarvis, fully integrated with tram and rail. For politicians, the question is what’s the maximum they can do with the leverage they have?
“Councils have been hardheaded to cope with austerity and make cuts to children’s services and social care. But when it comes to bus priorities, congestion and pollution charges and new homes they’re not so good.”
Conservative MP for Mansfield Ben Bradley insists levelling up is still in its early stages, although ‘the narrative may not be totally clear yet,’ due to the Government’s focus on Covid.
He added: “The Future High Streets and Towns Fund initiatives are focused on some of the most ‘run down’ town centres and disadvantaged areas, with millions either already approved (the FHSF) or to be confirmed in the coming months (Towns Fund).
“That will make physical changes to town centres and local economies, and be a very real and visible benefit of the ‘levelling up’ agenda. There’s also a multi-billion pound ‘Levelling Up Fund’ coming along similar lines.
“To me though, it’s more than just that physical infrastructure.
“I think this agenda is simply about shifting our focus towards the needs of some of the areas of the country that have been left out for several decades.
“I think the change in our Skills and Further Education Agenda is arguably the most important for many communities, promoting technical and vocational skills and supporting people to retrain as adults. That’s a long term change and will take time to make, but I would argue will be one of the most important elements.”
In December, Sheffield won £15.8m from the Future High Streets Fund to improve Fargate, Chapel Walk and Fargate.
Last autumn, The Government announced a Levelling Up Fund, worth £4bn over four years including £600m next year. But last week the Local Government Chronicle claimed about half (£300m) would come from ‘reshuffling’ cash from the Towns Fund. It was supposed to kickstart capital projects in 101 towns. But resources have been diverted to deal with the pandemic and so far only seven have had final amounts confirmed, it states.
Meanwhile, nearly three in four of the ‘R&D intensive jobs’ created between 2009 and 2019 were in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge, a new report states.
The Tory-leaning Onward think-tank is calling for £9bn of research and development money to be diverted to the North and Midlands, warning that without it efforts to ‘level up’ regional productivity could flop.
Northern leaders are also concerned that plans for new rail services are being downgraded. Last year, the National Infrastructure Commission said the focus should be on linking cities in the North and Midlands ahead of HS2.
It did not ‘rule out’ the completion of the high speed line through the Midlands and Yorkshire to Leeds. But campaigners fear the eastern leg will be kicked into the long grass.
Then this week, Transport for the North agreed to delay submitting a ‘business case’ for Northern Powerhouse Rail following pressure from the Department for Transport. It has raised concerns the scheme will be done on the cheap.
Sheffield MP, Paul Blomfield, said new red tape and costs imposed by Brexit had hit manufacturing hard. And ministers were still refusing to commit to replace the £605 million South Yorkshire would have received for economic development from the EU.
The Budget was an opportunity for the Government to show whether there was anything behind the rhetoric of ‘levelling up’.
He added: “After a decade of Tory-run Government, which has driven growing inequality and helped to create the ‘left behind’ communities it talks about, we need to see real evidence of change on Wednesday.
“It could start with restoring the funding taken from local government; cuts that decimated local services. It could include real investment in our rail system to create a hub of northern cities to rival London and the south-east.
“The Chancellor could finally address the needs of those self-employed and small businesses who have missed out on coronavirus business support schemes, to ensure that they can hit the ground running as we emerge from the pandemic. As we face the economic damage of Covid-19 and the Conservatives’ flawed Brexit deal, with less access to crucial markets, we need real action to build jobs.”