Yorkshire and the North will never be levelled up when all the important decisions are made from offices overlooking the Thames as opposed to those with a view of the Aire, the Ouse or the Don.
The United Kingdom has some of the greatest regional inequalities in the developed world. For too long successive British governments have had a low opinion of the capacity of the local state to deliver change.
They have preferred to rely on funding streams which usually involve a competitive bidding process amongst deprived areas for small grants whilst the purse strings are held tight centrally.
The truth is that local council public servants such as Kersten England in Bradford, Tom Riordan in Leeds or Kate Josephs in Sheffield are more able, and much better placed, than Sir Humphrey to advise elected politicians about and manage the levelling up of our country.
With this basic philosophy in mind, here follows 10 suggestions for Yorkshire’s Rishi Sunak as he finalises his second Budget:
Firstly, it is time to put aside vague platitudes and define precisely what levelling up means, both in terms of regions and of individual life chances. Only if there are real targets to achieve will minds be concentrated in moving heaven and earth to reach them.
Secondly, it is widely rumoured that the Chancellor will announce the establishment of a branch office for the Treasury transferring 700 officials to Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle or Darlington. How much more powerful such a move would be if the Prime Minister put in charge of this base a Minister for the Northern Powerhouse with a seat in Cabinet.
Thirdly, if both Jake Berry, chair of the Tory Northern Research Group, and Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, think that channelling savings into an infrastructure bond to bring the North up to speed is a good idea it is almost certainly worth adopting.
Fourthly, local council staff have been the unsung heroes of the battle against the virus, and the Chancellor should fill the yawning gaps in local authority budgets. He should also set up a study to determine how English local government can get a more significant local tax base in the future, increasing accountability to the electorate for spending decisions.
Fifthly, the Chancellor should restore the cuts to Transport for the North which is the region’s most significant devolved institution. If we cannot even be allowed to set up our own smart ticketing system for public transport, what hope is there?
Sixth, the Government is committed to increase R&D spending which drives business innovation from 1.7 per cent of GDP to 2.4 per cent by 2027. As the right of centre think tank Onward has pointed out, the problem is that most of this expenditure is currently concentrated in the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London.
Seventh, a promise to devolve all skills funding for the 16-19 age group to mayors over the next three years would give local and national public servants the time to plan a smooth transfer and involve business and trade unions in determining regional priorities.
Eighth, a firm commitment to elected mayors in North Yorkshire and Hull/ East Yorkshire by May 2022 would be most welcome. More support for the work of the Yorkshire Leaders Board which encourages collaboration between our council leaders and mayors for the greater good would be signal of intent.
Ninth, the Chancellor created two relatively modest funds to combat regional inequality in last year’s spending review. The Levelling Up Fund has since been extended to the whole nation, rather defeating the point, and the Shared Prosperity Fund is a shadow of the European equivalent which preceded it. At the very least the Government should let elected mayors take direct control of the resources available.
Tenth, following the successful model in London, the Government should announce an Education Challenge for Yorkshire with the Yorkshire Leaders Board leading a partnership to drive up standards across both local authority and academy schools.
Yorkshire looks forward to the Chancellor delivering on these measures – and much more.
John Grogan is the former Labour MP for Keighley and leading One Yorkshire proponent.
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