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Executive Leader Cllr Brenda Warrington

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Councillor Brenda Warrington, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

Making "Levelling Up" A Reality

Friday, 11 February 2022

In my blog last month I wrote about how decades of neglect, exacerbated by the impact of austerity since 2010, have led to vast economic, social and political inequalities between the North and South of England. The data is stark and unmistakeable; a child born in the North today will benefit from fewer opportunities, earn less during their working life and, in all likelihood, die sooner than a child born a few hundred miles south.

Since then the government has released their much anticipated Levelling Up White Paper, explaining how they intend to address this historic challenge.

 

In the interest of fairness, I want to start with the things that I think the White Paper has gotten right. The first 120 pages or so lay out, in more detail than we’ve seen anywhere else, exactly what the inequality between North and South means in terms of how it affects people’s everyday lives, including productivity, wages and health. The White Paper also, correctly in my view, points out that it’s not just about money, as some of the best-off parts of the country still score very low in life satisfaction and the pride people feel in their towns and communities.

In terms of objectives, the White Paper is not short of ambition either, presenting 12 objectives in key areas that local leaders including myself have been highlighting for some time. This includes employment, investment, transport connectivity, internet access, education and skills, life expectancy and well-being.

However, no matter how impressive the analysis of where we are now and where we want to get to is, it has to be backed up by a roadmap on the practical and realistic steps we need to take to make “Levelling Up” a reality. It is in this most important of areas that I think the White Paper falls badly short.

 

The first stumbling block is a familiar one, that of money. Government departments and public services, including councils, are expected to deliver these ambitious goals using the budgets set out in the Spending Review last autumn. When you consider that balancing the council’s Budget for next year requires us to make an additional £7.6 million in cuts, and that over a decade of austerity has seen our total financial resources cut by £200 million and counting, the White Paper offers no help on how we are supposed to achieve much, much more with far, far less.

The second issue is that many of the key powers required to meet the “Levelling Up” objectives – such as tax policy, local government funding, schools and public health – remain firmly in the hands of ministers and civil servants in London. As well as being one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, England is also one of the most centralised in terms of decision-making. If we want Levelling Up to work, we need to change the relationship between Whitehall and town halls from one of master and supplicant to a partnership of equals, with power and funding given directly to those with the knowledge and motivation to make a real difference in their local areas.

The final area of concern is the timescales involved. Even the most successful examples of “Levelling Up” in other parts of the world, most notably in Germany as I’ve pointed out before in this blog, have taken decades to come to fruition. By contrast, the scope of the White Paper goes no further than 2030, with little information about how “Levelling Up” will be continued by a new generation of Prime Ministers, Mayors and Council Leaders. This is going to be a very long-term project, and we need very long-term thinking to match.

Without these ingredients the “Levelling Up” agenda, as welcome and feasible as I think it is, will remain a glorified wish list. And that would be a tragedy. Not just for the North, but for the entire country. I want “Levelling Up” to be a success, and I am committed to doing whatever it takes to make it happen in Tameside and Greater Manchester. I only wish that I got the sense from this White Paper that the government truly feels the same.

 

Posted by: Executive Leader