Gill Morris: Taking stock in a crisis

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Where are we and what does Covid-19 mean for Boris’ promises and levelling-up?

All our lives have been turned upside-down and social distancing is now the new normal. Working, living and schooling in “virtual” self-isolation means everyone is faced with the daily challenge of keeping going and it is hard for anyone to know what the 2020 Covid19 crisis will mean politically and economically.  What we do know is that there will be lasting impact on our society and how we hold central and local Government to account.  Lots of questions remain unanswered – what happens with the Labour leadership, climate change/Cop26, Brexit, levelling-up and devolution? Issues that would usually pack a punch in the political headlines are for now, at least, barely getting airtime.

In the spirit of keeping things going, we are adapting to staying at home to work and are embracing virtual communications. DevoConnect were quick to proceed with a scheduled meeting of the Net Zero APPG by holding the session on Zoom last week and  also held a series of other meetings with MPs and our training sessions virtually.  The nation is adapting to the new order and it seems possible we can make progress and shape the debate if Parliament and its MPs can also adapt to the new virtual  and socially distanced world we are living in.  Parliament must modernise in order to fulfil its primary function to hold the Government to account and provide the level of stability the nation needs in these unprecedented times.

Let’s have a quick reminder and stock take of  where we are and the Government’s headline and pipeline promises  to deliver greater prosperity and opportunity:

  • £30billion stimulus to support the UK through the tough headwinds of coronavirus overshadowed Rishi Sunak’s first Budget focussed on ‘levelling up’
  • Plans to deliver a step change in city-region public transport were in Sunak’s £600bn infrastructure chest with a £4.2 billion five year funding settlement to support Mayoral Combined Authorities in creating a ‘London-style’ integrated transport system.
  • The Transforming Cities Fund will open the door for Metro Mayors to secure monies for game-changing transport schemes in their city-regions, including the renewal of the Sheffield Supertram, the development of a low-carbon metro network for West Yorkshire, and tram-train pilots in Greater Manchester.
  • The Chancellor heeded calls from northern leaders to review the Green Book in a bid to help rebalance the Treasury’s regional investment decisions, and announced plans to move a fifth of Treasury staff to a Northern ‘economic campus’.
  • A key devolution milestone was reached with the West Yorkshire deal and a 2021 Metro Mayor election for the region is confirmed. The deal jettisons the campaign for a One Yorkshire deal.  It provides for significant powers across housing, planning, transport and skills – including the Adult Skills budget and scope for bus franchising, a new tram system and spatial development strategy – are promised as part of the deal alongside a £1.8bn investment package to support West Yorkshire in driving up its living standards, growth and productivity.
  • HS2 will go ahead – but there remain concerns about the Government’s ‘pause’ and whether this will favour the West over the Eastern arm. Perhaps the £4.2 billion infrastructure chest may not be quite as full as promised post-Coronavirus?
  • We are expecting a Devolution White Paper in the next few months, with Northern Powerhouse Minister Simon Clarke promising it will “unlock devolution” not only at the macro level of mayoral combined authorities but down to the town and parish councils.
  • The Energy White Paper aims to set out the country’s path to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 was supposed to be released last summer (2019). However, with former BEIS Secretary Andrea Leadsom pushing it back to Q1 of 2020 and then being replaced in the cabinet reshuffle by Alok Sharma this February, critics are sceptical to whether it will be released this Spring at all.
  • The Chancellor also made promises to improve housing in the Spring Budget – confirming nearly £1.1bn of allocations from the Housing Infrastructure Fund to build nearly 70,000 new homes in high-demand areas across the country, including a new £400m fund to build on brownfield sites. Additionally, the Affordable Homes programme that was due to end in 2021 has been extended, with the Chancellor revealing that a new multi-year settlement of £12 billion will be given to the programme.

So, reasons to be cheerful?  Rishi Sunak said“By pulling together we will get through this”. The Dunkirk spirit may be what’s needed, but the fact remains that no one really knows what the ‘other side’ of this looks like. It is essential for our economy that promises are kept and policy commitments do not falter.  There is no doubt that radical devolution needs to play a major role in any ‘Great Recovery’.  To find out more, see what DevoConnect Director, Steve Barwick, has to say in his blog here.

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