If the Spending Review lacks ambition, we will miss a vital opportunity to level up the North
Northern Powerhouse Rail is often presented as the infrastructure heart of levelling up, but there are growing fears critical parts of it like Sheffield to Leeds could be delayed along with the north-east leg of HS2, writes Dan Jarvis MP. | PA Images
The brutal reality is that the North is on course for levelling down, not levelling up. Covid-19 must not become an excuse to delay the transformative investment needed to level up.
Debate about levelling up takes place amid an unprecedented economic crisis facing the whole country. Covid-19 has reinforced an argument that was already undeniable: that we need to level up the North. Not just a tinkering at the margins, but a full-scale transformation, to end an act of national self-harm. The question now is whether the government will make it happen.
Covid has hit the North and our economy hard. In South Yorkshire, the level of people claiming unemployment-related benefits is now higher than any time since the mid 1990s, when we were still in the aftermath of the pit closures. The brutal reality is that the North is now on course for levelling down, not levelling up. However, we can create a better economy, not just for our region, but for the whole of the UK.
As the only MP with the unusual privilege of also being the Mayor of an English region, I know first-hand we can deliver. Since my election in 2018, we’ve created or protected 15,000 jobs. Our pioneering Working Win programme has helped 6,000 people who want to get back in to work. We have leveraged £319m of investment and unlocked more than £100m for regeneration. We’ve also committed £5.5m of our own funds to kickstart nine flood prevention projects.
We’re putting our skin in the game and laying down a challenge for the government to do their part, rather than waiting for them to take the initiative.
I can safely say we stand ready to be levelled up. I know my counterparts across the North would say the same. What we are asking for is the tools and funds to get on with that job. We’ve not had them yet. Aside from the Towns Fund, a one-off payment spread across the whole country, the overall picture is one of tinkering, not transforming.
The moment to change this is the Spending Review. In the current crisis, it’s understandable the government are carrying out a modest one-year review. But that must not become an excuse to delay the transformative investment we need if levelling up is to really mean something. The key concern is that the Spending Review lacks real ambition: something shared by 55 Conservative MPs who wrote to the Prime Minister last month.
This is not just about making the Northern economy bigger – it’s about making it better
We need to action in three areas to shift the dial.
First, the government must extend the Local Growth Fund (LGF), which expires in March. The LGF has been absolutely critical in unlocking jobs, investment and regeneration, but a simple roll over will only be enough to stand still. An indication of what we need is the UK 2070 Commission’s recommendation to triple the new Shared Prosperity Fund to £15bn a year for 20 years – a total of £200bn of new funding. It shows the scale of ambition we should be talking about to create a New Deal for the North.
Second, it must invest in transport. Northern Powerhouse Rail is often presented as the infrastructure heart of levelling up, but there are growing fears critical parts of it like Sheffield to Leeds could be delayed along with the north-east leg of HS2. It’s hard to overstate how damaging that would be for levelling up and our economy.
Third, the government should make some critical structural changes: reforming the Green Book to reduce the bias towards rich areas in government investment decisions, and finally following through on proposals to move significant parts of the civil service.
All of this is not just about making the Northern economy bigger – it’s about making it better. My ambition is for the North to be stronger, greener, and fairer. That should be our aim for the whole of the UK, not just to help unleash our potential, but to help address the disillusionment and division that is growing across our country, and which threatens to break it up.
We are now at a moment of crisis, and of opportunity. I cannot believe this country, or this government, has so forgotten its ambition that they would accept the waste, inequality, and division we now see. But if we are to end it, then the moment to act – is now.
Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and Mayor of the Sheffield City Region.