Levelling up – or down – is not creating a level playing field. Barnsley, for example, has been given only part of the vital funding it needs. Other areas have received more – with ‘blue’ constituencies clearly winning out over ‘red’ ones? But is levelling also a multibillion pound ‘green’ opportunity that we cannot afford to miss?
There is growing evidence that levelling up the English regions is very patchy, with the north generally losing out to the already richer south. And even where the north does benefit, the results are far from uniform.
Levelling down… independence for the North… or a gateway to sustainable living?
Enough to turn us purple with indignation? Perhaps. A close look at what has been done so far is frustrating. But a fair system could put us ‘in the pink’.
Yes, there are major concerns. South Yorkshire Chambers of Commerce have cautioned the Government against ‘levelling down’ the north, as I mention later. There are also ominous warnings that ‘to truly rise again’, northern England must become a self-governing state.
However, an early 2023 think tank report backed by the CBI has also identified dozens of UK net-zero ‘hotspots’ – including cities and regions earmarked for levelling – where low-carbon industries could become part of the UK’s £71 billion ‘green’ economy powering the sustainable energy transition.
New Year revolutions
In January 2023, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove launched Round 2 of the Government’s Levelling Up Fund with a £2.1 billion war chest to ‘…breathe new life’ into more than 100 projects and ‘… spark transformational change across the UK’ by creating jobs and boosting local economies’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-levelling-up-fund-to-spark-transformational-change-across-the-uk).
It includes £672 million earmarked for better transport links, £821 million to kick-start community regeneration, and £594 million to restore local heritage sites. Winners include Morecambe’s Eden Project North visitor centre, Blackpool’s AI campus, a new rail link in Cornwall, and a major Gateshead regeneration scheme. Much more money will go to the south.
Gove has promised a Round 3. However, it is broadly rumoured that The Treasury is taking the unusual step of limited how much more he can spend on capital projects without its approval.
For South Yorkshire, the news has been both good and bad – raising questions about whether the money is being used to gain popular support rather than being targeted to areas where it is most needed.
The good news first
We are delighted that the Government has prioritised plans to transform key parts of Stocksbridge. This will unlock £24.1 million of investment spending on projects including a major transformation of Manchester Road with a new library and community hub, revamping town centre paving, a bus service connecting remote communities, and upgraded sports, education and outdoor facilities.
There is also positive news for Barnsley Futures bid, with £10.2 million awarded for Barnsley Central and the creation of a new Northern Academy for Vocal Excellence (NAVE). This will be a permanent home for the world renowned Barnsley Youth Choir, and is part of an investment to help transform young people’s cultural education and well-being in the newly redeveloped town centre.
The aim is also to redevelop the Young People’s Wellbeing Hub ‘H.O.M.E.’ (Helping Our Mental ‘Ealth) for services focused on emotional well-being, personal resilience and well-being activity.
…and the not-so-good news
However, there is also disappointment that the £16 million bid to further develop Elsecar Heritage Centre as a national tourist destination was unsuccessful. The vision is to redevelop a 3,140 m2 brownfield site into a waterfront suite of buildings by the canal with 40 workshops and a new café.
Barnsley East MP Stephanie Peacock is critical. “Levelling Up is meant to provide support to the areas that need it most,” she says.
She adds, “I welcome the fact that neighbouring Barnsley Central was successful in their bid, providing important funding for youth services and the Barnsley Youth Choir, but let’s not forget that the Government have cut £15 billion from local governments in cash terms over the last decade”.
But most of her ire is against political decision-making. “Barnsley East is yet to receive any Levelling Up funding, even though we [qualify] by every one of the government’s measures. I’ve called for Barnsley East to receive levelling up funding in Parliament several times, questioning why the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s well-off constituency received money whilst Barnsley did not.”
“Barnsley remains in the ten per cent of areas with the most deprivation. A third of Barnsley residents are now in fuel poverty”, she says. Meanwhile, Conservative-held constituencies are more than twice more likely to receive funding than Labour areas.
Yorkshire to get half the funding designated for Conservative southeast seats
And there is an important point here. The Prime Minister did boast about moving money from deprived to affluent areas during his leadership campaign. His own Richmond constituency in North Yorkshire will receive almost £20 million to transform Catterick Garrison town centre.
Yorkshire Post research shows that two thirds of Round 2 money in England has gone to ‘blue’ seats; six Yorkshire projects totalling some £120 million have been given the go ahead by Westminster compared to £210 million in the southeast.
Of £1.6 billion given to English local authorities, circa £1.1 billion is going to areas with a Conservative MP, or majority of Tory MPs, according to an analysis of Government data. Only some £475 million is due to go to Labour-held areas.
Government officials, however, stress that around 45% of investment funding in both Round 1 and Round 2 has been allocated to areas held by opposition parties.
Transport levelling problems too
It isn’t just our immediate community infrastructure that is missing out. Vital transport links are being cut back too that connect us to other UK but also important international markets.
After months of wrangling, the Mottram bypass which would mean faster all-weather connections across the Pennines has finally been given the go-ahead. However, it is now being opposed on environmental ground in a legal appeal by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CRPE) (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-64242906).
The north has important manufacturing centres. However, limited road, rail, and air links – with the closure of Doncaster’s Robin Hood Airport – make servicing global markets difficult at a time when many big markets and corporate buyers want to broaden their tattered supply chains.
But HS2 is inevitably a major bugbear.
The proposed HS2 network has been cut dramatically since it was announced in 2013. Links to HS1 and Heathrow were cancelled early on. Between November 2021 and June 2022, other major cuts were made. As part of the Government’s Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands, most of the eastern leg of phase 2b from Birmingham via the East Midlands to Leeds and York was lost.
As things now stand, the route has been diverted to the existing East Midlands Parkway station, from which trains will continue north via the conventional rail Midland Main Line.
The Government’s idea in its integrated road plan to upgrade the East Coast Mainline as a replacement for developing an HS2 eastern leg to the north has been described as deluded.
Small slow cities
Leeds is Europe’s largest city with no mass transit system. The risk for cities that functionally become ‘small places’ with no large mobile workforce is that everything ‘slows down’.
As of October 2022, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it had “no plans” to cancel HS2 despite rising inflation. It added that the latest overall cost projection of £155.52 billion is “setting the foundations for additional schemes” such as Transport for the North’s Northern Powerhouse Rail.
This compromise idea is to put saved funding towards improving connectivity between Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. That hardly reinforces business confidence.
In fact, the lack of a new line to London feeds into the idea set out in Alex Niven’s new book ‘The North Will Rise Again’ published in February 2023 which explores the importance of the modern North of England. (https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-north-will-rise-again/alex-niven/9781472993465).
One solution set out by the Government itself is a ‘North East’ devolution deal for County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside, and Sunderland.
Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, sees the future more in a Germany-style ‘Grundgesetz’ Basic Law constitution that ensures an equal distribution of funding between federal states, or ‘Länder’. This might be in the form of a consolidated northern state governed by a Great North Assembly. Or it could be large inclusive sub-regions such as the north-east and north-west.
South Yorkshire Chambers of Commerce is an example where the post-pandemic and post-Brexit challenge of recruitment and economic performance is furrowing brows; it called on the Government in January 2023 not to ‘level down on infrastructure’ (https://www.scci.org.uk/news/south-yorkshire-chambers-of-commerce-call-on-government-not-to-level-downandamp;/).
The Chambers’ fourth quarter 2022 economic survey noted some encouraging reasons for cautious optimism. Business confidence was slightly weaker than a year ago, but is beginning to level out.
Specifically, South Yorkshire plans to work closely with other northern chambers in campaigning for infrastructure funding that matches areas of economic potential, and escape the ‘levelling-down’ cycle of infrastructure promises to the north that have been scaled back or abandoned.
Transport is a major issue; 53% of survey respondents reported delays or problems in the road network, and 33% with rail. Some 42% experienced rising direct travel costs, 31% increasing product/service costs, and 25% losses of business opportunity or client disruption.
A 3% fall in firms reporting increases in forward orders added to the gloom; companies operating at below capacity rose from 56% to 60%. At the same time, 61% said inflation was a growing concern; 18% were also worried about the sterling exchange rate.
Clearly, there is much to do.
However, I also referred earlier to low-carbon industries.
In ‘The UK’s net zero economic hotspots’ (https://eciu.net/analysis/reports/2023/mapping-the-uk-net-zero-economy), CBI Economics (https://www.cbi.org.uk/what-we-do/economic-consultancy/cbi-economics/) and The Data City (https://thedatacity.com/) show that there are now almost 20,000 businesses in the net-zero economy contributing £71 billion (3.7%) Gross Value Added (GVA) to the UK economy.
Clicking on individual ‘cells’ on the hotspots weblink above shows the ’£-10-figure’ financial contributions that areas like the Rother Valley and other parts of South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire are already helping to make, plus the thousands of green jobs and incomes they are creating.
We do need to level up the north. But it needs to be done properly without political grace or favour.
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