Working with a dedicated team to improve people’s lives was an immense honour and a great privilege, and I am proud to say that South Yorkshire is in a much better position now than it was when I was elected back in 2018. We created a renewal fund of half a billion pounds.
We set up an ownership hub, the first of its kind anywhere, to support co-operatives and employee ownership. We invested heavily in cycling and walking as part of an integrated, accessible and sustainable transport plan. We gave young people affordable bus fares, and began the work of bringing our buses back under public control. We agreed a groundbreaking flood prevention strategy, and started work on a housing retrofit programme. But for all the good that we achieved, I also saw just how much potential was being wasted.
After a while, we learn to read the small print in all the promises. The flagship Shared Prosperity Fund will eventually reach £1.5bn a year, but not until 2024, which means that it will be worth significantly less over its lifetime than would otherwise have been the case. Meanwhile, the Levelling Up Fund, which replaces the Local Growth Fund, will do so at a reduced level.
The Government promised £3bn for bus renewal, but delivered just a third of that. South Yorkshire got nothing at all – but then, so did the majority of places that applied. It is levelling up for the lucky few.
All this can be measured against a baseline of deep cuts in council coffers: that, right there, is the reality behind the rhetoric. As for devolving control, most cash still goes through inadequate, politicised, short-term, competitive pots. That makes strategic planning impossible, and wastes precious time and limited resources. It is only fair to say that the levelling up White Paper did set out some welcome, albeit modest, aspirations. No one on the Labour benches will oppose efforts to increase life expectancy or eradicate illiteracy.
As it stands, however, those aspirations are just that – aspirations – and, with no details on how they will be funded, we will not arrive where the Secretary of State for Levelling Up wants to go on the current trajectory. He is not present at the moment, but I can tell him that if he wants to be this generation’s Michael Heseltine, he needs to change course.
I accept that none of this is easy. We are dealing with entrenched socioeconomic problems, decades of chronic underfunding, and layer upon layer of patchwork approaches.
It will take a lot more than a commitment to ensuring that everyone can benefit from al fresco dining – however laudable that may be – to transform our economy. Let me tell the House, in a constructive spirit, what I think needs to change.
The first item is funding. If the Secretary of State needs an example of where levelling up has succeeded, he should look to German reunification. It is estimated that €2 trillion was spent on the project between 1990 and 2014. Most East German federal states are still the largest recipients of investment from central Government.
Despite huge progress, East Germany has still not fully closed the gap with the former West Germany, but its GDP per capita is now higher than Yorkshire’s.
Secondly, there is the issue of control. We need an increase in fiscal devolution and a major shift towards allocating central funds according to automatic, genuinely fair formulas. We must let go of the purse strings and trust local decision makers.
Thirdly, there is the question of powers: we need a step change in devolved powers, with skills, transport and policing among the priorities. Regional governments need to be in the driving seat of a local industrial strategy.
That does not mean one size fits all. Greater power and funding must be integrated with wider reforms, both here at Westminster, so that the centre also reflects the place of regions and nations, and locally to ensure that stronger local and regional government is held accountable.
Finally, on democracy, we need basic safeguards for the continued solidarity and redistribution between the nations and regions that make us a United Kingdom and against a race to the bottom on standards or tax. If we can do all that, we will have built not an empty facade but a solid foundation for our country’s future.
- A statement in Parliament by the Barnsley Central MP for Labour.