Keir Starmer should take inspiration from Boris Johnson to send South Yorkshire nuclear: Chris Burn

Hearing Sir Keir Starmer frame the election as an effective choice between “levelling up with Labour or chaos with the Conservatives” in his first keynote speech of the campaign was somewhat unexpected.

His party has directed plenty of opprobrium towards Boris Johnson’s flagship policy to tackle regional inequality over the years, with his deputy leader Angela Rayner recently describing the Conservative approach to the concept as a “sham and a scam”.

But while Johnson’s popularity has plummeted over this Parliament along with that of the Tories and their successive leaders, levelling up has remained a generally well-liked policy idea even when the delivery on the ground has been lacking.

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At last week’s UKReiiF conference in Leeds, former city council leader and Labour grandee Baroness Judith Blake perceptively said that whatever one’s views of Johnson, “he was so good at thinking up phrases that got people’s attention” and that the term levelling up “got the emotion” of attempting to improve life in the regions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson tours the Hinkley Point C site with managing director Stuart Crooks on April 07, 2022 in Bridgwater, England. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)Prime Minister Boris Johnson tours the Hinkley Point C site with managing director Stuart Crooks on April 07, 2022 in Bridgwater, England. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson tours the Hinkley Point C site with managing director Stuart Crooks on April 07, 2022 in Bridgwater, England. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

So it is perhaps a sensible move for Labour to suggest they will pick up the baton, particularly in light of the open goal provided by Rishi Sunak’s announcement that funding previously earmarked for levelling up would go towards the Conservatives’ contentious National Service policy.

Another area where a new Labour Government could take inspiration from their once-nemesis Boris Johnson is the field of nuclear energy.

Prior to the election being called, I went out to see Andrew Storer, the boss of the fantastic Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in South Yorkshire.

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He was among the industry figures who helped persuade Johnson to set up the Great British Nuclear body in 2022 as part of a drive to open new power stations of differing sizes and ensure that one-quarter of the nation’s energy is supplied by UK nuclear sites by 2050.

When we discussed the ongoing delays to a Government bidding competition to find companies to build small modular reactors, Mr Storer gave his view that things would have progressed more rapidly had Johnson remained in power.

As Mr Storer put it: “His words were ‘We’re not betting on the Grand National here, we can’t back every horse - we need to make decisions quickly’.

"I think we would be further forward because of the aggression that is needed to cut through the Whitehall system.

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“You shouldn’t have to spend your energy fighting the system, the system should support you to get to the endpoint quickly.”

The delay matters as Rolls-Royce, one of those shortlisted in the bidding process, has scaled back its plans in this area while the ongoing uncertainty also has a knock-on effect on the supply chain.

The Nuclear AMRC, which has a key role in turning academic innovations to speed up manufacturing processes in the sector into commercially-viable concepts, is also waiting for the starting gun to be fired.

It is part of a wider ecosystem of research and manufacturing in South Yorkshire which could be at the heart of the UK’s nuclear renaissance.

Some swift decisions on nuclear investment by the next Government would go a long way to making that vision a reality.

Chris Burn is business and features editor for The Yorkshire Post

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