Transform the North into a giant Opportunity Area by overhauling the Treasury – Justine Greening
I GREW up watching elections on TV and wondering what it was like to be one of the candidates standing on the platform waiting to hear the result. You never quite knew how any general election was going to turn out.
One thing certain was that, in my community of South Yorkshire, we always returned Labour MPs to Parliament. But no more. The days of safe Labour seats are over. Rightly so.
No community should ever feel like they’re taken for granted. People want to vote for an MP and a political party who will take their priorities and make them their own. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was on a ideological joyride that overrode the practical concerns of people up and down the country, including here in Yorkshire.
There were three overriding issues set out by Boris Johnson at this election. The first was ‘getting Brexit done’. Another was the NHS. And the third was levelling up opportunity.
In my first ever column for The Yorkshire Post, I said “talent is spread evenly, it’s opportunity that’s not”. Boris Johnson regularly repeated those words on the campaign trail. People voted for him. And now he has to deliver. Those communities in the region who have entrusted him with their vote, will want to see more than just rhetoric. This Government must recognise that levelling up communities on opportunity isn’t straightforward, it’s complex and it’s about tackling systemic failure.
Social mobility and equality of opportunity matter to me personally – my life has been shaped by opportunity – having it, but also at times, not having it. Alongside my parents and teachers, it was the opportunities I had and the experience they gave me that built me as a person. Social mobility matters to all of us. I fundamentally believe that people are this country’s biggest asset and that the ability to make the most of your potential is a right everyone should have.
An Opportunity Guarantee should sit alongside the guarantees of an NHS free at the point of delivery and our welfare state for all people across our country. But today our country is a million miles from that.
As important as it is, it’ll take more than new infrastructure investment to level up opportunity across communities. In fact, talent flows towards opportunity. Better transport connections help individuals get to those opportunities elsewhere but don’t always directly lift opportunities in the places they come from. In then end, real levelling up for communities means people having opportunity on their doorstep, not a prohibitively expensive train ride away that’s beyond the reach of most and puts it out of reach.
We need to develop Yorkshire’s talent and also provide the home-grown opportunities that it deserves. Lots of young people want to explore a bigger world – I certainly did – but finding opportunity in other places should be a choice, not the only way you can kick start the career you want.
That’s why I’ve set up the Social Mobility Pledge to get more companies to think more strategically about focusing their opportunities towards a swathe of young people who are less connected to them otherwise. There are hundreds of businesses involved, working to play a bigger role in spreading opportunity in the communities they are part of. We could also additionally encourage companies to reach into those areas where there is the most untapped potential on the ground by offering tax incentives when they create quality, long- term employment opportunities there.
It’s also about letting young people know more about what opportunity looks like in the first place. I’d never had chance to meet a lawyer when I was growing up, so never really considered law as a career. It’s hard to aim for an opportunity that you know nothing about. But when young people do get a taste for what they could do, through mentoring or from work experience, then it fires them up and gives them a real motivation to succeed. Again, the role of business is key.
Ramping up work on education and skills has never been more crucially important. The Government should set up many more Opportunity Areas in the region. They bring teachers, community leaders and businesses working together on key, agreed local priorities with support from DfE teams, lifting educational outcomes for young people in their area.
Within Whitehall, Mr Johnson should recognise that HM Treasury isn’t fit for purpose, with little idea on how to invest in people for the long term. He should give it an ultimatum – reform or have the responsibility placed elsewhere.
I left Government, and ultimately Parliament, to focus my efforts on delivering grass roots solutions to spread opportunity and improve social mobility. It’s my priority. I believe my home town and region is brimming with talent, and we need to unlock that potential. It’ll take more than money, and new laws. And it needs leadership inside and outside Parliament. But if Mr Johnson can match his rhetoric with action and work alongside the rest of us, then maybe there’s some hope for levelling up opportunity across Britain as we approach a new decade. Merry Christmas!