An admirable ambition that I welcomed at the time. And yet what has transpired does not yet amount to a fully formed plan, and nor can it be described as “comprehensive”.
There was some initial excitement at the introduction of the “levelling-up fund” – a targeted pot of money that would attempt to directly address the problem.
However, the size, £4bn, was quickly recognised as insufficient, indeed much of it may be existing resources recycled. Research from IPPR North found that if the North had received the same transport spending per person as London over the last decade, it would have received £66bn more than it did. When you consider that the levelling-up fund will cover the next four years, it is clear that the £4bn whilst welcome is well below what is required.
However, the most controversial element of the fund was that it would be largely centrally administered, and MPs would have a significant role. This has raised fears that, like the Towns Fund, it could end mired in accusations of political bias and interference.
Sadly, Whitehall refusing to give up control is not specific to this fund, it has been evident throughout the pandemic. This despite the clear value of local expertise – just compare the centrally controlled Track and Trace performance to the locally driven successful vaccine roll-out. The Government needs to empower local people to have more say over their area – this is vital for true “levelling up”.
The Government has also made it clear levelling up is now about the whole of the country, not just the North of England. Whilst I support any attempts to ensure everyone shares in the UK’s prosperity, the fundamental economic and social issues which need to be addressed are in the North and it is our areas which need the vast majority of attention.
We should also be concerned of a lack of strategy for the North over the longer term. Levelling up is a long-term project. It’s not just about big cities – as important as they are – it’s also about towns and countryside and it’s about skills and wider public services.
And the lack of a “comprehensive” plan for levelling up was evident in the settlement for local government. The Minister made much of the £2bn additional funding “made available” to councils.
However, he failed to mention that 87 per cent of that would be from assumed council tax rises and not new investment. The last thing council leaders want to do is raise council tax, which as a regressive tax tends to hit those who are least able to pay.
However, coming on the back of a decade of cuts, with demographic pressures rising and the severe impact of the pandemic on finances, councils are faced with the prospect of not being able to balance budgets or having to cut services that protect the most vulnerable. To be put in this position is the opposite of “levelling up”.
There is also a giant social care-sized hole in the Government’s levelling-up agenda. As council tax now funds most of local government (up to 60 per cent from just 40 per cent a decade ago), where you live will increasingly have an impact on provision, creating a postcode lottery for services.
This is because wealthier parts of the country can raise more from increases in council tax than more deprived areas. We can only take “levelling up” seriously when the provision of social care is central to the Government’s plans as well as addressing the health and education inequalities that have grown over the last decade.
I want to hear that the provision of key services, such as social care for adults and children and housing provision, is as important to the Government as mega infrastructure projects. Indeed, there can be no real levelling up without improvements to the quality of the services we can provide.
In the Budget let’s hear a truly comprehensive plan that takes into account the quality of life we enjoy – our health, education and social mobility – and not just how we can get from A to B a bit quicker.
The Government deserves credit for at least talking about levelling up, but actions speak louder than words and the pandemic has shown more than ever that the North deserves better.
Sir Steve Houghton is the Labour leader of Barnsley Council and chair of the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (SIGOMA).
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