News & Insights  |  Posted July 18, 2022

Closing the gap; will the North ever truly catch up?

With the battle for Tory leadership now entering its final stages, one issue has become notably absent from much of the debate, despite being a key part of the Conservative narrative in recent years – Levelling Up. 

With the battle for Tory leadership now entering its final stages, one issue has become notably absent from much of the debate, despite being a key part of the Conservative narrative in recent years – Levelling Up. 

Levelling Up was credited with helping knock down the “Red Wall’ that helped the now outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson gain a significant majority in 2019, and even in his resignation speech, he urged his replacement to continue pursuing what could prove to be his most positive legacy. For now, however, the leadership contenders seem focused on more “parochial” party issues that may play better with the membership. 

For Johnson and many others though, ‘Levelling Up’ is much more than a fund; it’s a grand vision and a key source of poll success. With the release of its associated White Paper earlier this year bringing promises of everything from economic growth to a total renovation of the most disadvantaged areas, it certainly makes sense that the outgoing PM was determined to keep the ball rolling, even if it’s now just a matter of his personal legacy. 

But it’s worth noting that this recent political tension hasn’t just brought us a change of Prime Minister, it’s also brought a whole host of new cabinet members and a plethora of questions. Is this vision truly feasible? Will the North ever truly be able to catch up? And, if so, will the Tories truly be able to follow through under such politically arduous conditions?  

Urban policy has long attempted to, at the very least, slow things down. Decades of failed attempts to anchor the country together, initially kickstarted by post-war instability, made the subsequent deindustrialisation of the North feel even more surreal. What had once felt like filling a crack in the wall was now perhaps more akin to stapling together the Titanic. Existing policy just was not enough, and, pre-occupied with other more ideological issues, the Thatcher government of the 80s seemed more than content to leave the North of England behind. To keep the analogy going, the “knowledge-economy” ship had, officially, sailed; the economy began to shift, and many cities fell into a spiral of decline.  

It would be rash to argue that all past policy-based attempts have been ineffective, but it’s certainly safe to say that recent policy has proved to be much more successful. Perhaps the most notable would be that of David Cameron’s Northern Powerhouse Strategy, which arguably laid the foundations for Levelling Up. Though far from perfect, Cameron shared many of the same dreams, with great plans for improved productivity at its heart. In fact, ONS data suggests that since 2003, the GVA in the eleven largest cities outside of London has grown 10% faster than the UK average. Many of these were northern cities, with Greater Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds all nabbing top spots. Though not necessarily reflective of long-term change, it’s clear that the North has undoubtably come to the political foreground, despite its mixed results. If deindustrialisation is the war, then public policy has quite clearly been something of a blunt sword – capable of some significant damage when wielded effectively, but not quite enough to put an end to anything. 

So, what’s next?  

The effective delivery of funding is one place to start. With the Levelling Up White Paper came Round Two of the Levelling Up Fund Prospectus. Initial focuses are those designed to improve perception of place, like regeneration projects; something the Government has identified as one of the most important ‘pull’ factors in attracting investment. But amid an economic crisis, the highest tax rates in 40 years, and rapidly increasing energy prices, it’s hard to rationalise funding commitments for projects unactionable until 10, 20 or even 30 years down the road. 

A report by the House of Commons Public Accounts committee found that not only did the Government not actually evaluate the effects of flagship funding, but the principles with which winners were decided only after applications were submitted offering little transparency. It’s effectively like eBay for Westminster. They’re bidding with taxpayers’ money, and how fast you sell your item depends on how good you may be at manipulating the system. 

Even if this wasn’t the case, there’s still not much in the way of longer-term plans, with equally little detail for funding past 2050. Given that many of the plans are not actionable for at least the next 10 years, and that Westminster is even self-admittedly missing many of the “illustrative estimates” that should have probably been established before promising billions in funding, it’s difficult to evaluate how effective this auction will be. 

As it stands, there is also a clear discrepancy between the standard of education in the North and that of the South, and this very quickly becomes representative of the opportunities available to young people. Fewer than 40% of 16 to 18-year-olds in the North go on to further study/training, so it’s difficult to imagine how many more hoops they’ll have to go through to get those tertiary and quaternary jobs Johnson has promised. Rising house prices and cost of living in areas with rapidly growing economies, together with a population who can’t access those highly-skilled, high-paying roles, will likely push the most deprived local populations out. 

The fate of the North rests in the hands of Johnson’s replacement – and with all contenders focused on restoring public faith in the party, as consistently spotlighted in the debates, it’s been pushed down the list of priorities at least until after the election. Rishi Sunak is currently ahead in the leadership contest on MP votes, and while his commitment to Levelling Up has been questioned, he is currently the only candidate with a constituency in the North, also using Teesside as a backdrop to his campaigning at the weekend. 

The new Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary Greg Clark has long been an advocate for the North. Even with solutions lacking, and threat to their deliverance, it’s not entirely unreasonable to hope that Clark could keep us on track. His ties to the North as a Teessider and his personal appointment by Johnson suggest that he’ll stick to the direction originally laid out by the department, though that might ultimately depend on who wins and how long they’ll be in post.  

Whilst Johnson’s intentions were good, it’s clear that it’s not only destabilisation in government that could threaten the development of the North. With the way things are going, it may be that few Northerners will be lucky enough to be on the Levelling Up ship when it sails. 

Kate Wilson, Intern