What levelling up must mean in South Yorkshire – Dan Jarvis

I HAVE always supported the Prime Minister’s intention to level up the country, but it is outrageous that the UK has the worst regional inequality of any comparable developed nation.

What should levelling up mean for cities like Sheffield?

The gap is stark, from life expectancy to income, from unemployment to education, from productivity to health, and covid is making it worse.

That is not a small thing. It is an injustice – a stain on our country – and tackling it should be a matter of raging and persistent urgency, not some optional extra in the national political agenda.

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To be fair, it is not that the Government have done nothing. I acknowledge the help that we have had through the Transforming Cities Fund and the Getting Building Fund, among others.

Sheffield City Region mayor Dan Jarvis led a Parliamentary debate on levelling up as Boris Johnson was carrying out a major Cabinet reshuffle.

There have been some welcome policy shifts too, such as devolving adult education, reforming the Green Book and creating the UK Infrastructure Bank, but tackling deep-rooted inequality requires a special sort of intervention. It demands scope, endurance, resources, a national strategy and local leadership.

So far, the Government have fallen well short. First, transformative ambition needs transformative resources. Instead, we have old money relabelled as new and distributed with more concern for politics than progress. The flagship Levelling-Up Fund, worth £1.3bn a year on average, replaces a Local Growth Fund that was worth 14 per cent more.

Even worse, the Levelling-Up Fund puts the Chancellor’s Richmondshire constituency, ranked 251 out of 317 in England’s deprivation index, in a higher category of need than my constituency of Barnsley, which is ranked 38. That is no one-off. A third of English areas due to get funds are not in the top third of the most deprived regions.

We are starting to see a pattern develop, and it gets worse when we consider that these politicised, fragmented and inadequate funds also come against a major backdrop of cuts elsewhere.

What will Chancellor Rishi Sunak's spending review mean for the Government's levelling up agenda?

The Government is intent on ending the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, cutting income for 5.5 million families by more than £1,000 a year and taking billions out of the economies of more deprived areas. That of course follows the £15bn of cuts to local government in the past decade, which has fallen hardest on the poorest areas.

The Government trumpet their spending through the national infrastructure strategy, but it is unclear how much will go to deprived areas and when it will arrive. What we do know is that the Government are wobbling in their commitment to two of the biggest projects in the north: HS2’s eastern leg and Northern Powerhouse Rail. For them to be postponed or scaled back would make any claim of concern for levelling up utterly risible.

This week, I will hit “send” on South Yorkshire’s bid for £660m of city region sustainable transport settlement funding. If the Government want to end the long-standing bias in transport investment towards more affluent areas, I hope that they will back that bid in full.

It is not just how much money and where it goes that matters; it is how it is spent. It is alarming that the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy described levelling-up policy and funding as “lacking in any overall coherent strategic purpose” with little clarity about who is responsible, how progress will be measured or, indeed, what the objectives are.

The Prime Minister has spoken on occasion about levelling up the whole of the country. There is a very good opportunity for the Government to demonstrate their commitment to do this through the forthcoming White Paper, not just in terms of setting out a plan but linking it, mindful of the COP conference taking place this year, to the green transformation that we need, as well as to other priorities.

Critically, that national strategy must be based around local leadership. Levelling up cannot be done from desks in Westminster and Whitehall.

At the same time, levelling up cannot be just about business and infrastructure. It needs to be about investing in early years and education, in housing and health. It is about tax reform and funding local government. It is about the environment and public services. Arts and culture is another good example, which can bring major economic benefits – more than £5 of revenue for every pound of public investment.

For all the grand talk, the Government’s actions so far suggest a limited agenda, yet they still have the chance to change that. The Comprehensive Spending Review is where we will know once and for all whether the Government’s commitment to reducing regional inequality is serious or merely cynical.

There are six weeks to decide which it is. I very much hope that they do the right thing. One way or another, it is by their actions that they will be judged.

Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central and South Yorkshire’s mayor. He spoke in a Parliamentary debate on levelling up – this is an edited version.

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