The UK2070 Commission, in a new report today, said that without long-term changes which span more than single parliaments, people’s lives would be worse, and harder, in the future.
And that the Prime Minister’s “build back better” promise after coronavirus must be more than “rhetoric” if it is to allow the country to recover.
Commission chairman Lord Kerslake, the former head of the Civil Service, said: “The impact of the pandemic has not been even, it's exposed the vulnerability of parts of the UK very seriously. It's not been a leveler at all, it's actually accelerating some of the inequality.”
A previous Commission report revealed how the UK is the most unequal large country in the developed world.
And speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Lord Kerslake said: “If we're going to grow our way out of this - and in the end, that's the only solution really, is growth - levelling up has to be an integral part of the growth agenda for the UK.”
The Prime Minister and Chancellor have repeatedly committed to the agenda, which was a major key in winning votes in the North in December’s election.
But Lord Kerslake said: “There is some concern on our part that, perhaps understandably, responding to coronavirus will have pushed the [levelling up] agenda back in Government and we're arguing very forcibly that it needs to be still very much present very strongly there in Government's thinking.
“The Prime Minister has talked about ‘doubling down on levelling up’. But if you look at the objective facts, it doesn't seem to have the leadership, pace, and momentum that it's going to need.”
Lord Kerslake said that devolution was central to that plan, and that even with the expectation that the Government’s Devolution White Paper would be delayed, powers and funding should still be handed over in areas such as North Yorkshire which has been preparing for a deal.
“We've argued here for an independent commission to look at this in a short, sharp way over the next year, about how we devolve powers and funding in a much more comprehensive way than we've thought about it so far,” Lord Kerslake said.
He said that devolution was still possible without local government reorganisation, but he added: “I don't think at the moment they are geared up adequately to deliver it, if I'm frank, it's underpowered, the leadership of the agenda, and I make no comment on the particular individual but it’s located with a relatively junior minister, who's also covering local government and a range of other things.
“We don't see any signs of the kind of powerful crosscutting cabinet sub-committee that we think is needed here.”
He added: “The program of investment is welcome but doesn't match the scale of the task, we've argued for £150bn over 10 years, that's a reasonable estimate of what is needed.
“And we have no plan, we don't have a plan about how levelling up will be achieved.
“So is it possible? Yes. Are we on track to deliver it with the current level of investment in capacity and leadership? I doubt it at the moment, it needs something bigger and bolder than we have at the moment.”
“I genuinely think the Government is serious about this,” he said. “But unless they back it up with a kind of credible program, they risk becoming just words.”
As well as pushing on with devolution, the UK2070 post-Covid action plan, released today, set out other priorities for the next ten years, including a major programme of investment in transport, skills and the advanced economy.
“What we are saying is we don't think we will get out of Covid without [levelling up]. It's not a question of is it desirable, it's essential to responding.
“And the reason why that's the case is that there's only one route to deal with the financial cost of Covid, ultimately, or one sustainable route to deal with it.
“People talk about putting taxes up now or something like that, but the only sustainable way out of it is higher growth, creating greater productivity, greater value in the economy. And that's the only way you'll do it, and that's not going to happen unless we level up at the same time.”
But the work had to be long term, and Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Manchester and one of the authors of the report, Vincent Goodstadt, said the commission was taking inspiration from the NHS.
He said: “The NHS was conceived by Beveridge in 1942, when bombs were dropping on London. And actually, people would have said, ‘why on earth are you doing that? Why aren't you fixing the short term crisis?’ which is slightly more acute than the one we have now.
“What we are talking about is doing the thinking now, so that we are hitting the ground when we come out with this. And now's the time to do that thinking, I think people lose sight of the fact that what we have now inherited in the NHS would not probably have happened to the degree it has were we not thinking in the heart of the crisis.”
Lord Kerslake added: “I think if I have a bit of a worry about the Government, it is that it clearly has a massive challenge, nobody could deny the massive challenge of Coronavirus, but the risk is it just crowds out all the other priorities that they should be working on.
“We know that the White Paper on devolution has been put back, we know the social care paper has been put back, these are big systemic issues that aren't going to go away and we’ve got to find the space to plan for the long term here, as well as deal with the immediate crisis.”
He added: “So if we do nothing in 20 years time. 30 years time, we will have a woefully inadequate infrastructure in this country, widening divides that will manifest socially and politically, and we will not have grown in the way we need to to recover the public finances.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We’re determined to level up all areas of the country by empowering our regions through devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster – this includes investing in transport, technology, skills and culture through our £3.6bn Towns Fund.
“The creation of a UK Shared Prosperity Fund will bind together the whole of the UK while tackling inequality and deprivation – and we will set out further details for this and our Devolution White Paper in due course.”