Boris Johnson must prove to the North he’s a man of his word over ‘levelling up’ - Jayne Dowle

WHAT passed for New Year celebrations are over. It’s time for the Prime Minister to roll up his sleeves and prove to the North once and for all that he’s a man of his word.

Boris Johnson is under pressure to spell out his 'levelling up' mission.

I fear this means we’re in for a long wait. After he eventually emerged triumphant from the tortuous Brexit negotiations, he announced that his government has “a very clear agenda to use this moment to unite and level up”.

Haven’t we been hearing this since he took office more than 12 months ago? Please don’t tell me that he’s had other, more pressing issues to deal with. None of us need reminding that the new, virulent strain of Covid-19 is causing huge disruption to the start of the year.

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In London and the South East, hospitals are overflowing to such an extent that spare NHS capacity in Yorkshire is earmarked for patients who can’t be found a bed. We wouldn’t turn away anyone in a storm, but I’m sure this isn’t what we had in mind for the first step towards ‘‘levelling up’’.

Boris Johnson has been warned that his phrase 'levelling up' risks beocming as meaningless as David Cameron's 'big society'. Photo: Hannah McKay/PA Wire

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As Sheffield City Region mayor and Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis warns, the phrase itself is in danger of fast becoming as meaningless as David Cameron’s ‘‘Big Society’’.

Yet never has it been more urgent to fast forward plans to unite the twin concepts of ‘‘Brexit’’ and addressing the inequalities which blight so many communities and which will be thrown into stark context now we must find our own way in the world.

So much for ‘‘all in this together’’. The pandemic has proved that those with the financial wherewithal can buy themselves out of trouble. These will be the ones paying for private Covid tests this January, and jetting off on skiing holidays or to the Caribbean regardless of travel restrictions, while the rest of us knuckle down to a cold return to work.

What does Boris Johnson mean by 'levelling up'? Jayne Dowle poses the question. Photo: PA

Or in the case of so many, an uncertain future of furlough, redundancies and bankruptcy. If Mr Johnson doubts this, he might pull on one of those beanie hats he’s fond of and take an incognito walk through any of Yorkshire town or city centre. He would see the devastation that austerity, plus a global pandemic, has wreaked.

Even in the more prosperous parts of our region, shops, restaurants and cafes stand shuttered and forlorn. He would, no doubt, point to the ‘‘Towns Fund’’, the £80m pot of government money earmarked to spearhead regional regeneration.

In Yorkshire, 15 locations – Brighouse, Castleford, Dewsbury, Doncaster, Goldthorpe, Goole, Keighley and Shipley, Morley, Rotherham, Scarborough, Stainforth, Stocksbridge, Todmorden, Wakefield and Whitby – are each set to receive a hand-out ranging from £500,000 to £1m.

That’s all it is. A hand-out. The cash might pay for a new green space, or a community hub, or some such panacea. It won’t, however, go anywhere near tackling the root causes of inequality so cruelly highlighted by the pandemic and exacerbated by the privilege this government props up; chronic ill-health, physical and mental, in-work poverty and reliance on top-up benefits, schools struggling to cope and the grinding lack of self-confidence that sounds the death knell for enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Whole swathes of the population risk simply being written off never mind left behind, while the Government dithers over whether to relocate a few departments out of London and pins its hopes on the precarious promise of the HS2 super-fast rail link to the capital.

Yes, levelling up is a North/South thing in essence, but it is much more complex than that. The problems we see in the North may be given sharp focus against decades of under-investment and punitive local government cuts, but sadly they are by no means ours and ours alone.

It is important to stress that while many areas of the North face an uphill battle without serious government commitment to transforming health, economy and life chances, Brexit highlights serious disparity nationwide.

It is no coincidence, for instance, that much of North Kent was plunged into the most severe of Tier 4 restrictions before Christmas; the areas around Medway towns such as Rochester and Gillingham have been blighted by unemployment and ill-health for decades now.

It is no surprise, either, to learn that post-industrial areas of South Wales have witnessed some of the highest incidences of seriously-ill Covid cases.

Mr Johnson is known as a ‘‘big picture man’’; so he should present to us a believable vision encompassing the nation, instead of pandering to the polarisation which Brexit set in motion.

He must also understand that we are all weary. Weary of the pandemic and weary of his platitudes. If he can’t make a proper stand in this brave new post-Brexit world, we must make our own, and hold him to account at every opportunity.

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