Levelling up needs to become a reality not a convenient propaganda slogan - Andy Brown

Levelling up has turned out to be a very well designed slogan. It has not proved to be so effective at delivering real improvements for the North. Indeed, there is so very little evidence of the policy working that when government representatives recently appeared before the all-party Public Accounts Committee it couldn’t provide a single compelling example of a genuinely successful project.

Only around 10 per cent of the allocated funds had been spent. Much of it had been wasted.

It takes some doing to design and apply a levelling up scheme that is worse than the EU’s. Many of us still believe that this country will continue to suffer damage as a result of creating unnecessary trade barriers with the EU until we rejoin. Yet it is a very blinkered Remainer who thinks that the EU’s regional funding policy was a great success.

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I say that as someone who both successfully applied to get over half a million of EU funding into Keighley when I worked at the College there and then went on to oversee the handing out of millions when I was responsible for managing the funding of Young People’s Learning across Yorkshire.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with a Levelling Up sign. PIC: Christopher Furlong/PA WirePrime Minister Rishi Sunak with a Levelling Up sign. PIC: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with a Levelling Up sign. PIC: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire

The schemes came with good intentions and brought in a lot of money. Yet it was necessary to apply for short term project funding that rarely lasted more than three years.

Local organisations across Yorkshire had to put hours and hours of effort into writing bids for funding after studying over 100 pages of complicated rules. Even when their bid won, they often found themselves struggling to utilise the money in a rush.

Initiatives started with a flurry of publicity and then stopped before they had really achieved their purpose. Ultimately far too little of the money ended up creating genuine sustained improvements in the communities that needed it most. There were successes but they were few and far between and we got very poor value for money.

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Instead of changing all that, the current schemes have recreated many of those problems of bureaucracy and added a dose of political nepotism and weak oversight. Instead of well thought out sustained long term investment we have seen money handed out to marginal constituencies and political allies. Instead of ending the wasteful competitions between local communities for short term headline grabbing funding we have seen even more wasted effort on rushed bids to try and attract funding.

You can’t achieve sustained economic improvement by letting politicians direct funding to the local leaders they happen to favour. There is nothing to be gained by getting free from top-down schemes designed by the EU if you simply replace them with the British government rewarding its friends. You don’t achieve economic success by dumping sensible controls over public spending, launching a deregulated race to the bottom and calling it a free port.

It takes time to design a successful scheme to re-generate an area and it takes long term alliances between business, local government and local experts like the colleges that can provide the skills training. Those alliances can only be built around regular reliable funding. That money needs to go where the needs are most acute, not where one political party thinks it can gain an electoral advantage.

A great many people in the North told Ministers from the start that the best way to develop rail transport was to begin by putting in place coordinated local rail services and lines that efficiently connected Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds/Bradford, York, Hull and Sheffield.

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What we got was a highly expensive line from Old Oak Common to Birmingham and then a series of desperate attempts to make promises to fund some sensible northern schemes. After the election.

You don’t achieve genuine economic devolution by announcing it in London. Allowing Ministers to select the areas which will be allowed to elect a mayor by a first past the post system that rigs the election doesn’t automatically bring economic improvement.

Declaring that you are devolving government and allocating extra funding isn’t very impressive when it is accompanied by crippling cuts to local authority mainstream budgets.

Most local councils have little or no money that they can rely on to help start economic development in their area and are chasing money from schemes that stop and start almost as quickly as government Ministers change jobs.

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Local government and local business people need long term reliable funding that lets them plan improvements that will last for generations.

That means allocating proper mainstream funding to local authorities and to business communities.

Development needs to be sustained and sustainable - not determined by short term political convenience. Levelling up needs to become a reality not a convenient propaganda slogan.

Andy Brown is the Green Party councillor for Aire Valley in North Yorkshire.

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