The current Government has made various commitments to ‘levelling up’ the country. Defining what this means in practice remains unclear, but we know the UK is by some measures the most geographically unequal developed economy in the world, driven by a system where power is centralised in Westminster.
Earlier today, I gave evidence on this subject to a select committee of MPs who are holding an inquiry on levelling up and role of local and regional structures, particularly in the delivery of economic growth.
I joined witnesses including other elected Mayors as well as representatives from the Northern Powerhouse; Midlands Engine; the UK 2020 Commission as well as Katherine Bennett, the chair of the Western Gateway, a cross-border economic partnership in which Bristol plays a key role.
We know that this inequality also applies at a city level. Here in Bristol, some of our most deprived areas border the most wealthy. The uneven impact of Covid and effects of lockdown on our communities also cruelly demonstrated the contrasts and shows the importance of tackling these inequalities.
Any national policies focused on ‘levelling up’ should be about investment in all areas of the country, and we need to move beyond seeing it as a competition for funding between places.
Every place needs investment to ensure no communities miss out on resulting opportunities – whether from infrastructure development, investing in education, skills and training or supporting local R&D.
This will be particularly critical as the country leaves the EU transition period. With no clarity on the future of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and time ticking, it is vital the Government ensure any replacement of EU funds is targeted effectively. It should be done in a way that enables us as local leaders to address social inequality in our local places, not a top-down approach from Whitehall.
As the country moves into its Covid-recovery and the challenges ahead, the focus on communities and impacted populations should be at the heart of any ‘levelling up’ programme.
City authorities already have the relationships with local businesses and citizens to help identify our key local priorities. But ensuring we’re sustainably funded and resilient enough to help drive this work is going to be critical.
Any funding for ‘levelling up’ should also be focused on developing local skills and supporting re-training opportunities as well as investment in areas like public transport that will ultimately help people across the city and wider region access jobs and opportunities.
I also called on central Government to engage more regularly with the ‘core cities’ to ensure any policy measures are delivered appropriately and meet the needs of our areas. We already know the UK has much lower productivity amongst its large cities when compared to other countries. Power must shift from London to regional cities to enable us to determine our own future, working alongside our city partners.
It is only through such collaboration that central Government will be able to ensure it delivers a comprehensive and equal approach in its ambitions on ‘levelling up’ all regions of the UK.
You can view the oral evidence session at the BEIS Select Committee here.