It’s now becoming clear: the Levelling Up White Paper will be a washout. It will not deliver the economic growth, quality jobs, and investment that our country and communities truly need – and have been promised. If the Government is truly serious about levelling up, it needs to focus on manufacturing.
The Levelling Up White Paper will set out the Government’s strategy for revitalising left-behind parts of the country, especially in the North of England. It was Boris Johnson’s policy of ‘levelling up’ that was partly responsible for the Conservatives winning the 2019 General Election and turning many traditionally Labour seats – the so-called Red Wall – blue. So, the Government needs to get the strategy right.
Although the White Paper is yet to be published, we do know from leaks in the media that a good proportion of the paper will focus on devolution. But devolution will not solve the fundamental challenges at the heart of our local and regional economies. The UK has had more devolution in the past 20 years than ever and, yet, despite that, we are still a deeply unequal society. I’m certain that our new Metro Mayors are hard-working and well-meaning, but they can do little, if anything, to develop the economies of the most left-behind areas of our country. They have neither the funds nor the power.
The reason the Tories have chosen to focus on devolution, and other similarly hollow schemes, is because it is cheap and easy – two basic requirements for any of this Government’s current policies. With Michael Gove’s new department given little cash to play with, the focus will instead be on new labels and vanity projects.
We need to focus on manufacturing
Instead, if the Government truly wants to level up the country, it needs to focus on UK manufacturing. Britain used to be the workshop of the world, making and selling products all over the globe. Yet years of deindustrialisation under both the Tories and, admittedly, Labour has destroyed that, hollowing out what was once the backbone of our economy.
The areas that were once our industrial heartlands need something to sell to the rest of the world. They need good, well-paying jobs in the towns and cities that have suffered years of neglect. They do not need empty gestures, unsustainable financial handouts, or another layer of government. They need a competitive advantage over other countries, and even over London and the South East. And that’s exactly what more manufacturing would provide.
Make the UK competitive for manufacturing
So, how do we boost manufacturing? It all goes back to making the UK competitive. For far too long, we have been hoodwinked into thinking that our economy can only revolve around the City of London and the big banks. This has created a hostile environment for manufacturing firms, and now they do not want to base their factories here. On one hand, we have orientated our education system, universities, and vocational training toward services, especially financial, which has starved our economy of the skills it needs to compete in manufacturing and other heavy-hitting industries.
On the other hand, the City of London’s appetite for selling off proud British assets and companies – from Arm to Cadbury – has pushed the value of our currency to levels that makes it unprofitable to manufacture in the UK. For the past 30 years, the Pound has been inflated to such high levels that it makes very little economic sense to base manufacturing operations in the UK. The Government must remember that around 70% of the costs of manufacturing are affected by the value of the Pound. If these prices are too high, British-made products simply become too expensive to sell to the rest of the world. So, the Government should pursue a strategy of proactively tackling our uncompetitive currency.
The Government must create an environment for manufacturing companies to want to come to the UK if we want to compete on the world stage. Where cities like Bradford, Stoke, Sunderland, and others once again become world hubs of manufacturing, and something the UK is proud of – rather than relegated to an addendum at the end of a much-delayed paper like this one.
Our economy is stagnating, with economic growth almost grinding to a halt. We need a way to generate the wealth and taxes to tackle some of the most pressing threats of our time, from rising social care costs to climate change, something this paper won’t provide. This Government is too focused on optics, and not nearly focused enough on actual change.
Whatever the Levelling Up White Paper contains, it won’t be a concrete plan to help the areas of the UK that need it most. It certainly won’t contain an outline to ‘build back better’, or whatever the Government’s buzzword of the month turns out to be. We need sustainable growth, more jobs, and investment in the projects that make a difference. What we don’t need is more of the same hot air that has been blowing out of Number 10 for the past decade.
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