Northern Lights: We need long-term approach not Tory Hunger Games of the North

Levelling up was once paraded as the Tory Government’s flagship agenda. In 2021 then Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke of his ambition to address the ‘imbalances and inequalities that are found in the regions of the United Kingdom’, supposedly looking not just at growth and job outcomes, but disparate healthy life expectancies and educational opportunities too.
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture PABritain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture PA
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture PA

How quickly they’ve dropped the façade.

Far from the “radical economic transformation” we were promised, levelling-up has sadly become yet another avenue for Rishi Sunak to practice pork-barrel politics.

When Yorkshire gets just half the funding the South East does, receiving significantly less than we did in the first round, and when two-thirds of the fund are parcelled off for Tory-held seats, it’s clear that this Government has abandoned any pretence to care about levelling up the north.

Boris Johnson (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)Boris Johnson (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
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There are huge questions to be answered about how levelling-up has come to this.

The last-minute changing of the criteria, deeming revised bids from Round 1 ineligible for Round 2 after they had already been submitted underpins how fundamentally broken levelling-up is.

Hard-pressed local authorities across the country have spent millions to support levelling-up bids. Those Councils whose bids were deemed automatically ineligible—because Ministers on a whim decided to change the criteria—are rightly seething.

At a Public Accounts Committee meeting in January, I asked the Permanent Secretary for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DUHLC) to say in a word how he thought levelling-up was going. He said it remained ‘the central mission of the Department’ and ‘at the heart of the decisions we take’. If that is the case I’d be deeply concerned to learn what Levelling Up means for the DLUHC.

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Levelling up should not mean giving Rishi Sunak’s wealthy Richmond constituency £19m, or reversing Treasury formulas to give priority to more wealthy areas, while denying some of the most deprived areas in the country.

It should not mean shifting funding for successful bids away from Yorkshire towards the so-called Blue Wall, in a desperate attempt to stave off the electoral annihilation that awaits them at the next General Election.

More broadly, from their continued use of competitive funding pots, it’s clear that the Government has no plan for our communities, no strategy to grow our economy or tackle years of neglect for our regions; and certainly no interest in tackling inequalities.

Rather than the Tory Hunger Games of the North that pits local authority against local authority, we need a Government that will take a long-term approach to rebuilding our economy.

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We do want to level up Sheffield, and after twelve years of Conservative decay we desperately need to. But we don’t want to do this in a way that undermines Manchester or Leeds, or comes at Doncaster’s and Barnsley’s expense.

Levelling-up can’t just be the occasional gift of funding from the metropole to the provinces. We need a new economic settlement that transfers not just resource but economic policymaking out of Whitehall.

We want to work together with cities and towns across the north, as powerhouses of our new green economy, with our universities and colleges working collaboratively to drive innovation and deliver the skills we need, and good north-north transport links to better facilitate that. Our post-industrial heartlands should be at the centre of a green industrial revolution, but our local authorities are currently having to work towards this with one arm tied behind their backs.

Levelling up isn’t working because it’s still based on a mistrust of our communities, stymied by Whitehall’s refusal to support any meaningful devolution of power. But local authorities are best placed to deliver local growth and steward in the new economy we need.

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Rather than one-off pots of funding—or more accurately, rejection letters to bids for one-off competitive pots—we need a Government that will empower every part of the country with the tools they need to deliver clean and sustainable growth.

For levelling up to mean anything, we will need to see the rebalancing of wealth and power away from Westminster and back into our local communities, who have shown time and time again that they know best.