Why Barnsley is key to Michael Gove’s levelling up plan – Jayne Dowle

LET’S give Michael Gove a chance to prove himself in his new role in charge of levelling up. He might start by looking at Barnsley, where I live. It’s a perfect case study of problems – and potential.

Michael Gove is being urged to visit Barnsley after being handed responsibility for levelling up.

On the one hand we have the new £120m Glass Works regeneration project, with high-end retailers such as Flannels, fancy restaurants and beautifully-landscaped public gardens taking shape in the town centre.

On the other, there are areas of the borough where children exist on crisps, where homes are crumbling through the neglect of private landlords and lives are constrained by poor mental and physical health.

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Michael Gove has been handed responsibility for levelling up in the Cabinet reshuffle - he's the new Housing Secretary.

George Orwell, who visited Barnsley in 1936 when he was writing The Road to Wigan Pier, his searing exposure of social poverty, would find much that was still depressingly familiar.

All but one area – semi-rural Penistone, bordering Sheffield and the Peak District – in the Barnsley borough is considered to have high levels of deprivation, according to an Office for National Statistics study published in December 2020.

Wentworth and Dearne MP John Healey has told the Government: “People can see through the glib talk from government ministers about ‘levelling up’. After 10 years of Conservatives in government, their priorities are still in London and the South.”

It’s up to Mr Gove now to reverse this attitude; a confident north of England that pulls its weight economically would benefit the whole country ahead of the next election.

How can aspiration be raised in towns like Barnsley?

New northern votes for Conservative candidates helped to break down the so-called ‘red wall’ in 2019, and the newly-appointed party co-chairman, Oliver Dowden, will be acutely aware that this support must not be squandered.

If Mr Gove is seen to do nothing of consequence, this will not play out well. He must rescue levelling up and make it his own, showing his mettle as he did when overhauling GCSEs as Education Secretary.

Yes, it was unfortunate – or interesting – timing that his new appointment as Secretary of State for Housing with special responsibility for the levelling up agenda came just hours after the reports that in 1987, in a Cambridge debate, he called Northerners cruel, dirty and toothless.

As numerous celebrities and sportspeople have found to their cost, nothing dies in the digital world; ill-advised youthful opinions have a nasty way of 
re-surfacing. I’m sure, when I was 20, that I said and did a lot of things that would now make me cringe.

And anyone who knows anything about the actual art of debate is that it’s not necessarily about personal opinion, it’s about structuring and delivering an argument in favour or against a motion. That’s why so many politicians cut their teeth in university debating chambers.

Let’s move on. And let’s also remember that what you see with Mr Gove – a senior Conservative politician, urbane, meticulously well-spoken and well-connected – is not necessarily who he is. The adopted son of an Aberdonian fish processor, he was educated partly in the Scottish state system and embraced Conservatism under the wing of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms.

To be a Tory in the mid to late 1980s was to believe that you could do anything if had enough self-belief. Think of it like that and you can see why 54-year-old Mr Gove might be just the man for the levelling up job.

This much-maligned policy requires a proper infrastructure-led strategy, joined-up investment and intensive ongoing diplomatic brokership with Northern leaders, including our own regional metro mayors.

However, Mr Gove does at least bring to the table some personal understanding of the North-South divide. His first priority, as South Yorkshire’s mayor Dan Jarvis told Parliament last week, must be to treat levelling up as a matter of national urgency and “not some optional extra in the national political agenda”.

The inequity of the £20 cut to Universal Credit, which will directly impact upon families whose lives could theoretically be transformed by levelling up, is a case in point.

Mr Gove was prepared to take on the teaching unions, and as Secretary of State for the Environment, he also challenged Sheffield City Council over the tree-felling controversy. He’s proved himself as perhaps the most resilient of senior Tory ministers and he is clearly not afraid of combat. If he goes into bat for us, and makes a difference to the lives of families in Barnsley and elsewhere, we might just buy him a pie and a pint.

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