It has been almost 18 months since the Prime Minister won a landslide on a pledge to level up the left behind cities and towns of the UK. Since then almost all of the Government’s capacity has been spent on dealing with the pandemic. However, as the vaccination programme progresses and we begin to look towards the future, the Government needs to put levelling up back at the top of the political agenda.
While the pandemic has made levelling up more important than ever, Centre for Cities has found that it has also made it four times harder. The economic damage of the last year means that 634,000 people in the North and Midlands now need to find secure, well-paid jobs to level up the country, compared to 170,000 this time last year. Birmingham, Hull and Blackpool all stand out as places where the local economies have been particularly damaged.
Added to this, as well as levelling up, the Government now has the added task of stopping many previously prosperous places that have been hit hard by the pandemic from levelling down. Crawley is one of those places; its proximity to Gatwick Airport and reliance on the aviation and tourism sectors has meant that it’s seen the largest increase in unemployment claims in the UK, and has the largest share of furloughed workers.
A speedy vaccination programme and the reopening of the economy later this year will repair some of this damage, but it won’t be enough to truly fulfil the levelling up promise. Unfortunately, I have so far seen little from the Government to suggest that they have thought seriously about how to increase the prosperity of places outside London and the South East.
Too many of the Chancellor’s announcements in his recent Budget – Towns Deals, freeports, other centrally-controlled funding pots – suggest that he intends to maintain the overly-centralised Whitehall-knows-best way of running the country that has come under so much criticism during the pandemic.
Even the Government’s most eye-catching policy so far – the relocation of thousands of civil servants from London to Darlington, Wolverhampton and Glasgow – fails to grasp what the levelling up agenda should be about: growing the size of the private sector outside the South East to create new high-skilled, high-paid jobs. During the ‘jobs miracle’ that followed the Financial Crisis, the majority of new jobs created were in the private sector, yet now the Government is relying on the public sector to do the heavy lifting.
Instead of moving government personnel out of London, the Government should devolve its powers and resources to local authorities and directly-elected mayors and entrust them to make the right decisions to grow their local economies.
The effect of the Whitehall led approach on the levelling-up agenda is clear. When levelling up is discussed by government, more often than not, it is within the context of huge infrastructure schemes – HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, a Great Britain-Northern Ireland tunnel. These will not, alone, level up our less affluent cities and towns. The reason that they won’t is because transport is not the most common thing holding back places, it’s the lack of skills among adults in the area.
Take the example of Burnley: in Burnley nearly one in five adults lack any formal qualifications and, because of this, few higher-skilled, higher-paying businesses choose to locate there as they know they will not be able to hire the workers they need to function. As a result, the economy in Burnley is dependent on lower-paying jobs and people there are paid on average £16,150 less per year than in London.
This challenge will not be addressed by shuffling civil servants around the country, nor by new trainlines. Instead Burnley, and places in a similar situation, would get the most benefit out of sustained investment in both adult education and programmes to attract higher-skilled, higher paying jobs into the town. Whitehall is too remote to design and deliver either of these, which is why it should trust and empower local leaders to do so.
Unfortunately, despite the Prime Minister’s previous support for greater city devolution and the 2019 Conservative manifesto’s commitment to deliver it, the policy has stalled. The Government’s long-awaited white paper on English devolution has been postponed indefinitely, with the high-profile stand-off with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham last year turning ministers away from the idea of devolving more power.
This shift in Government thinking is unfortunate. Whitehall cannot be expected to do everything, and nor should we want it to. If the Government hopes to level up left behind cities and towns then it needs to trust and empower local leaders to make the right choices for their areas.
Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities