Predictable problems have plagued promises on levelling up - Tony Lodge

Great political slogans come and go. Harold Wilson boasted of the ‘White Heat of Technology’, Tony Blair promised the ‘Stakeholder Economy’ and David Cameron gave us the ‘Big Society’.

But it is surely Boris Johnson’s promise of ‘Levelling Up’ which, unlike the others, attracted most interest largely because it was accompanied with billion-pound promises and bold ambitions.

Sadly, the problems with levelling up emerged quickly and were predictable. How can London civil servants genuinely judge if a council’s multi-million-pound bid for levelling up cash will really deliver the regeneration and long-term improvements which the funds were created for? How can they really appreciate a region’s unique potential and specific sector advantages so that monies can complement them and help them grow?

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Yorkshire is a particular case in point. The key is having local funding decisions made at the local level by those who appreciate where it is best targeted. Instead, Whitehall mega ministries have created a bidding and begging bowl merry-go-round culture with claims of political preferential treatment and schemes which achieve little. The Americans famously call this ‘pork barrel’ politics.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson at the Global Soft Power Summit last year. PIC: Jonathan Brady/PA WireFormer prime minister Boris Johnson at the Global Soft Power Summit last year. PIC: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
Former prime minister Boris Johnson at the Global Soft Power Summit last year. PIC: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Regional growth, inward investment, social mobility, better life chances and high-skilled job creation will always be intrinsically linked with good transport connections and good quality infrastructure. For example, where towns and cities enjoy fast and competitively priced rail connections then their task of attracting inward investment, better jobs and higher education hubs is immediately made easier. Yorkshire’s railways are unique in that most of its large cities enjoy intercity train competition where rival firms compete for passengers and fares are comparatively low. This happens nowhere else in Britain.

Passengers at York, Hull, Wakefield, Bradford and Doncaster now enjoy up to three competing high-speed train services where open access services compete with the government-run LNER service. A plan to introduce a new fast open access service to connect Sheffield with London King’s Cross is awaiting the green light. Hopefully this will be swiftly approved so passengers can enjoy more trains and real fare competition. This will help the city’s leaders make their case for inward investment. Sheffield has not enjoyed a direct fast connection with King’s Cross since 1968 and the new service will rival the existing East Midlands train service to London St Pancras.

Importantly, new economic analysis from ARUP shows what can be achieved. The open access Hull Trains services which connect Beverley, Hull, Selby and Doncaster with London have delivered between £185-£380m in extra local benefits since the service was approved by Tony Blair’s Labour Government in 2000. These figures are expected to grow to between £325 and £700m by 2032. Prior to Hull Trains starting operations there was just one direct daily train in each direction between London and Hull. Similarly, the Blair government also oversaw the approval of new fast Grand Central services to Doncaster, Bradford, Wakefield, Pontefract, Halifax and York in the mid and late 2000s.

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These direct rail links have boosted inward investment and done more for levelling up and regeneration than a host of Whitehall schemes. There are also significant environmental benefits as it means more people abandon the car and coach and instead use well priced high speed trains. Interestingly, Sheffield has a particularly high reliance on coach and car travel with London and its train fares are comparatively high, especially when one compares them with those at nearby Doncaster where three train firms compete for London bound passengers.

Whilst boosting good value transport links is key, another crucial role for any region keen to attract new industries is a thorough appreciation of its industrial assets, both past and present. When this region endured the closure of the coal industry the government reacted too slowly in reskilling and appreciating the value of the sites which had once been large and busy industrial centres. The same mistake risks being made again.

Yorkshire is home to some of the largest and best-connected post-industrial brownfield sites in Britain. They have rail connections, are close to major motorways and ports as well as enjoying connections to the national grid. These are the former vast coal fired power station sites at Ferrybridge and Eggborough, collectively covering over 1,000 acres. Ministers and local policymakers should be working hard to attract existing and new sectors to these sites working with the owners.

If policymakers better appreciate a region’s economic assets and potential only then can they better target and complement them with levelling up funds. This then delivers the high skilled jobs, investment and key improvements in the regional economy which everybody wants to see.

Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.

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