Defiant leaders brace for North’s levelling up fight 

Leaders from across the North displayed renewed vigour and optimism for levelling up yesterday, but key questions on how it will be delivered remain. 

The word of the day at the Convention of the North, held at The Spine in Liverpool, was ‘collaboration’, as leaders from across the North pledged to adopt a united front in fighting for what they feel they deserve. 

Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram were in particularly bullish mood. 

“We are not going to go along with this ‘get what you’re given’ approach anymore,” said Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester. “That is what they always try to do to us. We are not in that position anymore.” 

Much of Burnham’s ire centred around the government’s Integrated Rail Plan, viewed by critics as a watered-down version of Northern Powerhouse Rail. 

Read more about the government’s Integrated Rail Plan 

The North’s vision for NPR featured a new high-speed line between Manchester and Leeds via Bradford. The government’s plan, released last year, does not. 

By its own admission, the government did not test the IRP against its levelling up agenda, Burnham said. 

“How can this be the government’s flagship policy?” the Greater Manchester mayor asked, adding that the North was prepared to contribute financially to the rail plan if it had to.

“We are not just fighting for ourselves, we are fighting for future generations in the North. We would let them down if we accepted second best.” 

The leaders are lobbying for government to take another look at the rail plan, insisting that the cheaper IRP would blunt the economic impact that NPR promised. 

“We are not going to have our ambitions downgraded by civil servants who don’t live here and who frankly don’t care enough about what happens here,” Burnham said. 

Rotheram said the pressure being put on the government over the rail plan could be paying off, claiming Whitehall is open to revisiting the project. 

“It is looking like the door is now ajar when it had been slammed in our face,” he told Place North West. “We’re hopeful that now we can start to genuinely negotiate, and we think we can get a better deal for the whole North.” 

Broken transport promises are merely a symptom of the wider issues around levelling up. For years, leaders in the North have bemoaned the lack of detail and commitment displayed by government on an issue that won it several red wall seats at the 2019 general election.  

In his opening address to delegates in Liverpool yesterday, Rotheram said a strong North is as good for UK PLC as a strong London, adding that the capital receives a “disproportionate amount of government spending”. 

While this is not news to leaders in the North, those assembled at The Spine yesterday were keen to find out straight from the horse’s mouth if and how this imbalance would be addressed. 

Manchester Train View, C Fraser Cottrell Via Unsplash

Rotheram said the government was open to taking another look at its rail plan for the North. Credit: Fraser Cottrell via Unsplash

In the afternoon, Michael Gove, secretary of state of levelling up, took to the stage in front of a room packed with expectant public and private sector leaders. 

After regurgitating much of what many in the room had already read in the white paper, Gove acknowledged that the North “is where the action is politically and economically”. 

Read more on Michael Gove’s speech at the Convention of the North. 

The secretary of state’s concession that trickle-down economics does not work was perhaps the biggest victory of the day for Northern leaders. 

“If you leave the free play of market forces entirely to themselves, then what you see is inequality growing,” he said. 

In addition, Gove promised to “till and irrigate” the North’s economic soil and give more power to leaders to make decisions that will benefit their areas, instead of simply handing out cash. 

“The state has a particular role to play to improve growth and to improve life chances. What we cannot do is direct capital investment and direct the private sector as to where to go.” 

The kind of devolution that Gove talked about is the key to the success of levelling up, leaders from the North have long believed.

There seemed to be a feeling yesterday that Gove might be listening. Although optimism in the room was tempered when the minister reminded those gathered that he does not hold the purse strings. 

“Michael’s level of commitment is significant. I think the chancellor is definitely where some of the problems are,” said Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. 

While the Gove is making positive noises on levelling up, questions about the how of the plan remain. 

How will devolution look in action, how much power will Northern leaders actually have, and how will government address more than a decade of local authority cuts? 

This last point was raised time and time again throughout the day as leaders accused Whitehall of ignoring the impact of years of austerity. 

Indeed, the words austerity and cuts do not appear once in the 305-page Levelling Up White Paper. 

Salford City Council has lost more than £230m of government funding since 2010, according to Mayor Paul Dennett. 

“That’s 53% of core funding that has been taken out of the city of Salford,” he said. “If the council was a private enterprise it would have been forced to shut its doors and make all of its staff redundant.” 

The economic impact of Brexit also hung in the air. Murison said some areas in the North could be hit hard by the withdrawal of EU contributions. 

“We’re going to be losing significant amounts of funding from the shared prosperity funds and that’s a real concern to us,” he said. 

In the face of these concerns, the North is mobilising. Leaders seem energised and ready to do what they can to help the North as a collective. 

“View us as a team, not a collection of individual places,” Liverpool Mayor Joanne Anderson said.

However, collaboration between the North’s most powerful figures will only get them so far. Ultimately, investment and devolution will be bestowed by Gove and his Whitehall colleagues. 

For this reason, the future of levelling up remains hazy but the North’s message is clear, Rotheram said. 

“Work with us. We will show you what real levelling up looks like.” 

Your Comments

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Shame they can’t collaborate as a NW or Northern offering at MIPIM. So much for a combined, bigger, stronger voice and profile.

By Dave H

Let’s start with calling ourselves Greater Liverpool ..and dump the ‘Merseyside” ..I’m looking forwards to the billions we need spending in our city region

By John lynn

While the government uses the “Centre for Cities” flawed population figures for the Liverpool City Region we will always be underfunded and sidelined by the civil servants and whoever is in power.

By Anonymous

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