Budget 2021: Stop talking and now deliver levelling up – Rachel Wolf

CHANCELLORS cannot focus their Budgets on the specific interests of their own local area.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is under pressure to define 'levelling up' in today's Budget and Spending Review. This was the Richmond MP during a visit to Northallerton in the summer of last year. Photo: James Hardisty.

But given a primary economic goal of Rishi Sunak is to improve lives in the less affluent North of England – the so-called “Levelling Up” agenda – it is reasonable for Yorkshire families to judge the Budget on how it affects them.

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Levelling Up is a term that, from our extensive focus groups, is poorly understood by people and politicians alike. It risks meaning everything and nothing. However, most fundamentally, it is about delivering short-term improvements to town centres, and long-term improvements to regional economies.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is under pressure to define 'levelling up' in today's Budget and Spending Review.

Will this Budget deliver? Even compared to usual, the Government has briefed a lot of detail in advance. If we are to take these leaks at face value – clearly, we need to see the fine print – the Government is taking some positive decisions beyond another huge injection of cash to the NHS.

There will be a commitment to put significant sums into improving transport, not least in West Yorkshire. There will also be a focus on skills. If we want to avoid people having to “leave the place they love in order to live the life they want”, then they need to be trained for local job opportunities, and companies investing need confidence that skilled people will emerge. New T-levels – more technical versions of A-levels – will get a big funding boost. There will be some funding for adult retraining and apprenticeships.

We are also told to expect new money for cultural institutions, like regional museums, and sports activities and facilities. This matters: we all know enough towns across the North that could do with a dose of the civic pride these institutions foster.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is under pressure to define 'levelling up' in today's Budget and Spending Review.

Perhaps most significantly in the short term, there will be a boost in the minimum wage to £9.50, which should help some families manage the massive cost of living squeeze they face as energy bills and food prices increase.

Given the Chancellor has decided to limit spending – amid fears of rising Government debt and inflation – this sounds surprisingly positive. But we will have to wait until the Chancellor delivers his speech to see what else he has up his sleeve because there are still short term and long term issues he needs to address.

In the short term, town and city centres are still crying out for a boost. We are told not to expect Rishi Sunak to reduce business rates on local businesses; a more fundamental review is expected separately. This is disappointing for those, like us, who hoped that a cut in rates would make life easier for high street businesses. But if there is to be no rate cut, we should expect help for town and city centres elsewhere.

Clearly, some towns and cities need more support than others. Places like Barnsley and Rotherham need more help than Leeds and Sheffield.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is under pressure to define 'levelling up' in today's Budget and Spending Review. This was the Richmond MP during a visit to Northallerton in the summer of last year. Photo: James Hardisty.

While every place is different, in our hundreds of focus groups in towns and cities we hear the same concerns: better security to make people safer; an improvement to shared spaces (like market squares and small parks); the protection or restoration of local monuments; and measures to make high streets look nicer – like flowers and greenery. The Chancellor may feel he has already allocated enough funds for these in previous budgets. If so, we need to start seeing some results.

In the long term, while the announced funding for skills is good news, it is not nearly enough to address the lack of training opportunities for adults around the country, or help them adjust as the economy changes and automation arrives. Universities and FE colleges need money and support, with businesses, to deliver a genuine retraining revolution or we will never give local people the opportunities they need.

We also need to see more than the current, temporary, measures, to help businesses invest in Yorkshire. The ‘super-deduction’ tax break previously announced is only temporary. It should be extended. We need a serious focus on research and development in universities and companies that will boost economies and living standards. Much of that money should be focused on specific places and industries, and should help institutions in the North.

More than anything though, and beyond the remit of the Budget, the Government now needs to get ultra serious about delivery. Every Budget contains funding packets, promises, and yet somehow they often dissipate into the same services at the same quality. The people of Yorkshire need their towns and cities to feel improved, as they walk and drive through them, in the next few years – that is the real test.

Rachel Wolf is a former Downing Street adviser to Boris Johnson and recently launched Public First North think-tank.

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