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Radical Reform or Nothing New: Northern Leaders React to the Levelling-up White Paper

7th February 2022 By Social
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The highly anticipated Levelling-up White Paper has finally landed.

A flagship policy of the Johnson Government for nearly three years, ‘Levelling-up’ has long been criticised by opponents for being nothing more than a soundbite, lacking direction or anything of real substance. The White Paper is a chance to prove otherwise and arguably the success of its contents might be the difference between victory or defeat at the next General Election for Boris Johnson.

Since coming to power in September 2019, Johnson has never been so vulnerable. The glory days of December 2019 and the Hartlepool by-election are a distant past. If Boris is to survive, let alone win the next election, he’ll need this to be the turning point.

However, there is more on the line than just one man’s political career. For decades, the United Kingdom has become increasingly imbalanced, with an ever-growing chasm between the economic, social, and health outcomes in the nations and regions of these islands.

Successive governments have spoken about addressing these inequalities, but action has rarely followed rhetoric.

It would be naïve to ignore the obvious political manoeuvrers and motivations of the levelling-up agenda. However, out of political strategy comes an opportunity to make a genuine difference in people’s lives.

Ultimately, the success of Johnson’s premiership, Brexit, and even to an extent the Union itself, will be largely determined by the levelling-up agenda and its role in addressing our nation’s inequalities. #PartyGate is damaging, but failing to improve livelihoods is politically fatal. More importantly, it would be catastrophic for individuals and families in the regions of our nation which have been neglected for far too long.

Northern leaders deliver their verdict

This blog isn’t going to rehash the contents of the White Paper nor rehearse the many arguments around its likely success or failure. Instead, we wanted to provide an insight into how Northern businesses and industry leaders have reacted to this long-awaited policy paper.

Has it lived up to their expectations?

Does it go far enough to achieve its intended purpose?

Drawing upon our network of clients and contacts from across the North of England, we’ve worked with these industry leaders to capture their thoughts and secure regional and national media coverage on their behalf.

Over the coming days, countless pages of analysis and many hours of debate will be offered on the contents of the White Paper. In the midst of this tumult of opinions, we should listen carefully to the voices of business and industry leaders, who know first-hand what it’ll take to make a success of the levelling-up agenda.

We’ve gathered some of their thoughts below.

Sir Roger Marsh OBE DL, Chair of the NP11 group of northern local enterprise partnerships and of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (LEP) said:

“We welcome the ambition of this White Paper. The North’s opportunity has been unrealised and under-invested in for decades and levelling up will only be achieved if it is a priority shared by the whole of Government, working with local and regional leaders. This White Paper starts to define and measure what success looks like.

“To achieve meaningful, lasting change it is vital that this investment is driven by local priorities… and that it encourages collaboration where this adds value, rather than forcing local areas to compete for centrally held funds.

“We are reviewing the detail of the White Paper and are encouraged. Increasing R&D spending outside London and the South East is something the NP11 has consistently argued is essential to leverage business investment and hit the 2.4% of GDP target, so we are pleased to see this at the forefront of today’s announcement. This needs to be used to develop capacity across the country, building on the three announced Innovation Accelerators. Rightly, the White Paper also makes clear that tackling health inequalities must be a priority of levelling up. Given the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had across the North, we hope that increased R&D investment will support our ambitions for a northern life sciences supercluster that will close the healthy life expectancy divide between North and South, while more than doubling employment in the North’s globally competitive life sciences sector and making the UK more resilient to future pandemics.

“It is encouraging to see continued Government commitment to devolution, as well as recognition of the vital role of public-private partnerships being convened by Local Enterprise Partnerships and pan regional partnerships like the NP11. These will be essential if we are to emerge strongly from the pandemic, with businesses and civic leaders working together on shared goals for their local area. We are pleased to see that the Shared Prosperity Fund, and other key funding streams, will be devolved to local areas and look forward to seeing the details of how these funds will operate. To achieve meaningful, lasting change it is vital that this investment is driven by local priorities, not just handed to local areas to manage, with a meaningful business voice, and that it encourages collaboration where this adds value, rather than forcing local areas to compete for centrally held funds.

“We look forward to discussing these and other elements of the White Paper with our fellow northern leaders and with the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, at the Convention of the North with NP11 in Liverpool on 8 February, and to agreeing how we can deliver on the levelling up promise for the North, working together as northerners and with Government.”

Dr Nicola Headlam, Chief Economist and Head of Public Sector at Stockport-based tech company, Red Flag Alert, and the former Head of Northern Powerhouse within government, said:

“On the surface there are some interesting announcements for the North West in the Levelling Up White Paper. Greater Manchester will get to expand the powers that Mayor, Andy Burnham, already has through a “trailblazing” devolution deal, and the city region will also benefit from a £100 million “Innovation Accelerator”.

 “Benefits for the region beyond Greater Manchester are less clear. Cheshire and Cumbria are not among the nine areas earmarked for a County Deal, and there is scant mention of the Liverpool City Region.

“More fundamentally, the White Paper seems to continue the trend of initiative-led regional economic development that has characterised government policy for over a decade now and has led to huge disparities, not just between the English regions but between individual places within them.

“Red Flag Alert’s work in Greater Manchester, for example, shows that high-growth businesses cluster together in more successful places but that many lack the growth to support the aspirations of their population. Put bluntly, an Innovation Accelerator in Manchester might help “turbo charge” the growth of individual firms, but this isn’t going to create the benefits needed to level up a regional economy that has lagged behind London and the South East for decades, and which has been hammered by COVID-19.

“As we recover from the pandemic, we face a decade in which public and private sectors will have to fight for every pound of growth. This requires a fundamentally different policy approach – one that is data-led and focused on wholesale redistribution of strategic investment, not catchy slogans or isolated initiatives.”

“As we recover from the pandemic, we face a decade in which public and private sectors will have to fight for every pound of growth. This requires a fundamentally different policy approach – one that is data-led and focused on wholesale redistribution of strategic investment, not catchy slogans or isolated initiatives. Unfortunately, the Levelling Up White Paper published today doesn’t provide this.”

Alun Rogers, chair of Stoke-on-Trent & Staffordshire LEP, said:

“We welcome the long-awaited publication of the Levelling-Up White Paper, which highlights Government’s recognition of the important role that LEPs like ours have played in delivering value for local businesses and the economy to date.

As a region home to high-profile education institutions like Staffordshire and Keele universities, which are already pioneering in the innovation sphere, the Paper’s focus on investing in research and development is something we particularly welcome. It was also great to see Stoke-on-Trent referenced as a key recipient of support for bus improvements as part of today’s announcements.

“We will be taking some time to consider the full document but look forward to continuing to deliver impactful work through our current arrangement. Through our close engagement with the public sector across the region, education partners and local businesses “on the ground”, we will continue to focus upon supporting skills, jobs and the economy and promoting further opportunity across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire.

“Through our close engagement with the public sector across the region, education partners and local businesses “on the ground”, we will continue to focus upon supporting skills, jobs and the economy and promoting further opportunity across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire.”

“We look forward to understanding how a continued emphasis on strong local leadership and public-private sector collaboration will enable Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire to move forward and thrive in the future.”

Will any of it matter?

The publication of the Levelling-up White Paper was meant to deliver certainty around the Government’s flagship policy. However, its publication has been overshadowed by an increasingly taller pile of no-confidence letters in the PM.

Will the White Paper make it to 2030? Will it make it to the end of 2022? Time will tell. But livelihoods, not just political careers, are dependent upon it.

If you need help understanding the political landscape or would like to discuss this topic further, then please get in contact with Jared Kerr