Boris Johnson reaffirmed his commitment to rebalancing the country by handing more power to local leaders and investing in regional infrastructure, but the North West remains unconvinced.
“What was missing was credible action that would actually change the reality of people’s lives here in the North of England,” said Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.
In a speech on Thursday, the Prime Minister said the government wants to “rewrite the rulebook” on devolution, with “new deals for the counties”.
“There is no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers we have devolved to city leaders so they can take charge of levelling up local infrastructure, like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and unlock new jobs or new bus routes…because they get the chance to control [them].
“Or, they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs,” Johnson said.
There is no “one-size-fits-all template”, the Prime Minister added – directly elected mayors for counties is one possibility but devolving power for a “specific local purpose”, such as to improve local transport services, is another. He urged local leaders to come forward with proposals to improve their communities and said the government would review them.
The Conservatives first promised to level up the country in their manifesto for the 2019 election, which saw them win a clutch of ‘red wall’ parliamentary seats previously held by Labour in the North and Midlands.
The Levelling Up policy involves investing in transport, infrastructure and skills to close regional economic gaps, and it has seen, among other initiatives, the launch of the £4.8bn Levelling Up fund announced in last November’s Spending Review; a review of the Treasury’s Green Book to balance project funding decisions away from London and the South East, and the creation of an infrastructure bank to be based in Leeds.
However, critics say almost two years into Johnson’s rule, the programme has failed to achieve tangible results. A report by think tank Centre for Cities in January warned that the pandemic would make levelling up in challenged areas of the country almost four times harder than it would have been otherwise.
In May, Johnson hired Harborough MP Neil O’Brien, chair of the independent Levelling Up Taskforce who has previously served as special adviser to former chancellor George Osborne and ex-prime minister Theresa May, to advise Whitehall on policy to level up the regions.
The government is expected to publish more details of its plan in September, but for now the details remain flimsy and Northern leaders said they were disappointed by the current offer.
Said Burnham: “Much of the Prime Minister’s analysis today was right and I don’t in any way disagree with it – far too often people’s life chances and health are still determined by the postcode they are born in. But what was missing was credible action that would actually change the reality of people’s lives here in the North of England.
“You don’t level up by throwing money at towns here and there and creating a chewing gum taskforce. You do it by backing city-regions like ours to create a London-style transport network with London-level fares that will unite towns and cities and transform the life chances of the 2.8 million people who live here.
“I urge the government to give us the power and resources we need and make levelling up a reality here in the North.”
Cllr John Merry, deputy mayor of Salford and chair of Key Cities, a cross-party network of 25 cities across England and Wales, said the group “welcomes the government’s renewed commitment to flexible devolution and local leadership… but would have liked to have found out more about exactly how it intends to achieve an inclusive and balanced economy for all parts of the country.
“This requires non-competitive, long-term funding based on objective criteria around deprivation, local needs and opportunities for skills, jobs and growth.”
He pointed to Key Cities’ Future of Urban Centres report this year that sets out policy proposals for levelling up that it wants to see adopted. Among these are city deals and further devolution, skills and training initiatives, and more location-specific funding for housing and regeneration.
Kevin Tully, managing director of Liverpool-based Tulway Engineering, added: “Post-Covid, the levelling up agenda is about so much more than just improving conditions for those in the most economically deprived areas. We are committed to the North West as a hotbed of industry, and we hope the government is too.
“The Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester mayors are fine examples that devolution is bringing about results and as we all aspire to level up, I’d like to see the manufacturing industry stand up and lead the way in terms of key topics, including youth employment, the green agenda and upskilling, to name just a few.”
Tully also said the £100bn of investment in infrastructure pledged by the Conservatives in 2019 “needs to be spread evenly across construction, transport, education, sport, the green agenda and more, to ensure we can all make progress in gaining a higher quality of life”.