Time is running out for the ‘levelling up’ agenda - but will Rishi Sunak act?

Rishi Sunak needs to show that levelling up is not just another soundbite (Image: Mark Hall)Rishi Sunak needs to show that levelling up is not just another soundbite (Image: Mark Hall)
Rishi Sunak needs to show that levelling up is not just another soundbite (Image: Mark Hall) | Mark Hall

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In his Spring Statement, Rishi Sunak needs to show that levelling up is not just another soundbite, but a real agenda that will use this country’s resources to improve the lives and opportunities of its people, writes Jonathan Webb

The levelling up agenda will be at risk if the Chancellor does not put public money where government’s mouth is on Wednesday.

The latest in a long line of initiatives to rebalance the economy (remember Northern Powerhouse?), almost three years into its existence, and over a month on from the publication of a long-awaited white paper, little has changed.

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People are rightly beginning to question whether this government is serious about its promises to raise prosperity and improve opportunities for all, and close regional divides – because the growing chasm between rhetoric and reality is all too familiar to those of us in the north of England.

If anything, at the moment, the country is being levelled down. Inequalities are growing. In the North, 3.4 million people are trapped in work poverty. Over one million households in our region live in fuel poverty and proportionally, the number of households experiencing fuel poverty is higher than the England average. And that’s before the current cost of living crisis has even begun to bite.

The longer the government kicks the can down the road on delivering a concrete and ambitious set of policies that improves peoples’ lives, and the longer it keeps centralising power and underinvesting (for example the Levelling Up Fund amounts to £32 per person in the North, compared to £413 cut in council service spending in the region during austerity), the more it will erode the trust of the electorate.

What Rishi Sunak needs to say in the Spring Statement

The task for Rishi Sunak is simple, and deliverable at Wednesday’s Spring Statement. He needs to show that levelling up is not just another soundbite, but a real agenda that will use this country’s resources to improve the lives and opportunities of its people. This can and must be done now, and can have an immediate impact.

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For example, he can get support to families who need it most, through no fault of their own, straight away through action like reinstating the Universal Credit uplift. This would help protect people’s incomes and prevent catastrophic outcomes.

Sunak should also act to commit to the long-term task of delivering levelling up and ensure that everyone, everywhere, has the opportunity to lead to good life.

This can only be done by letting go of power and giving it to local leaders so that they can build on the good work they’re already doing, like making buses affordable for local people.

While the levelling up white paper has promised much by way of devolution, few new powers have in fact been devolved. Civil servants in Whitehall are too far remote to understand in full the challenges and opportunities that different places across the country face, or design policies that work for local communities, like their local leaders can.

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The need for the levelling up agenda – however we badge it – isn’t going away. Places like the North can’t let it.

When the North speaks with one voice, it is 15 million people. It is England’s tallest mountain and its deepest lake. It is powerful and it is stronger together.

Because when it comes together in solidarity, then the North harnesses its collective experiences, its innovative expertise, its unique strengths, its diverse economic characteristics, and its incredible natural assets.

This is a powerful voice that the Chancellor cannot ignore. Sunak needs to hear, in the strongest possible terms, that central government action cannot wait any longer.

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Inequalities aren’t inevitable. In the 1990s, Germany put 70 billion Euros each year to closing its East/West divide. A similar commitment needs to be demonstrated here in the UK, by our government, if families and communities are to be protected.

The Chancellor should have already seized on the opportunity to back levelling up with the resources of the Treasury, yet he has not.

This makes the timing of this Spring Statement even more crucial. As the country, and particularly those at the sharp end of inequalities watch on, only by investing in getting support to people who need it and in closing regional divides, will the government’s promise to transform the UK’s economy by levelling up become a reality.

Jonathan Webb is a senior research fellow at IPPR North. He tweets at @jrkwebb.

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