How ‘levelling up’ is fuelling wider injustice – David Blunkett

PRECISELY one year ago, I reflected in this column on the challenges thrown up by the emerging threat of the pandemic and the first Budget statement by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, together with accusations of bullying against the Home Secretary.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak during the Budget.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak during the Budget.

Interestingly the three strands are still as relevant today. Since then, of course, we have had a series of spending announcements which currently total over£350bn: some commitments like furlough which have so far prevented mass unemployment and some like the £37bn Test and Trace fiasco.

Twelve months ago, without any prescience of what was to come, I wrote: “The balance between expert evidence and political instinct, between extreme caution and complacency and the importance of good communication, advice, and yes, that word again, common sense, will be vital in the months ahead.”

Reflecting on this now, I never cease to be amazed at the tolerance and fortitude of men and women who have not only had their lives severely restricted in all manner of ways but have swallowed, often without question, draconian laws never seen outside wartime or totalitarian regimes.

Boris Johnson (L) and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (C), stand on board a boat on the River Tees on March 4, 2021 in Teesport, England. Teesport has been chosen as one of eight sites for new Freeports.

Who you can meet and where, what can open and when, and even the requirement of permission to leave the country of your birth. Some of the impositions have been precipitated by scientific advice but also by the behaviour of a minority who never seem to have got the public health message.

But I am somewhat out on a limb by believing that if we don’t move rapidly to open up our economy and social life, rules will be broken and compliance will disintegrate.

There is, however, one other so far unspoken challenge which requires us to get back to a reasonable level of social interaction and structured living whilst still observing sensible public health precautions.

That challenge is to overcome the impact on the patterns of life of millions of people on furlough on the one hand and working from home on the other, which substantially alters the rhythm of life.

Will Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson level up Britain - or is this just another false promise?

Gradually, with children back in school and the economy beginning to open up again, it will be necessary to encourage those who are out of the workplace to feel confident to return to a full working life.

We will need to transform productivity, which has been drastically affected by an inevitable slowdown in working practices and a lack of social interaction and an environment of creativity and innovation.

That is why I was surprised that the Chancellor produced not a bold and honest Budget but a simple reversal of the measures introduced on corporation tax and income tax thresholds brought in by a former Conservative Chancellor in George Osborne.

Even the much vaunted freeports on the Humber and Teesside are a throwback to the enterprise zones of the 1980s – not a happy precedent. Yes, there was a nod to the levelling up agenda and with it announcements on the so-called Towns Fund aimed at retaining newly acquired Conservative seats in Parliament, but no comprehensive strategy for recovery from the devastating impact of the virus and not even a mention of social care.

A far cry from the Boris Johnson’s much vaunted promise “that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all, and with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve”.

If my observations are anything to go by, many of more mature years talk of having aged far more rapidly than the 12 months that have just elapsed. The consequences if this is true is that they will require greater support in the years to come. Social care is therefore an even greater priority than before the pandemic.

In fact of course, the present administration have moved substantially away from seeing Government as predominantly for ‘all of the people’. The so-called Levelling Up Fund, which is in fact less than the totality of all existing relevant pots of money, including the former European Structural and Social Funds, is to be doled out by ministerial largesse rather than needs-based decision-taking.

Why should Richmond, Rishi Sunak’s own constituency, or, for that matter, Derbyshire Dales, be designated as Tier 1 priority with funds available to prepare bids, whilst areas like Barnsley find itself in Tier 2? Where is the transparency and the honesty that the Government promises?

Here in Yorkshire we recognise fairness when we see it and we also know when the wool is being pulled over our eyes. If, as I hope, we are to have a speedy and much more equitable recovery from the pandemic, then it must entail all of us feeling that we are part of the solution, and that petty party political manipulation of public funds, is an aberration from which the Government will speedily extract itself.

If not, we are indeed in danger of creating even greater divisions, substantial perceived injustices and a long tail of resentment which will be a sorry legacy from an era where people have given so much, and who deserve better in the future.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former Home Secretary.

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