On the 25th November, Yorkshire MP and Chancellor, Rishi Sunak announced the one-year Comprehensive Spending Review. He argued that ‘our economic emergency has only just begun’. But IPPR North analysis shows today, that the economic emergency in England’s regions has happened along time ago but has gone largely unnoticed, underfunded and underpowered. Covid-19 is playing directly into this inequality creating huge hardship and pain for families across the North, consigned to live with poor health, poverty, childhood hunger. Being unable to live a good life in one of the richest countries in the world.
The Government’s rhetoric of ‘levelling up’ could have been a chance to learn the lessons from devolution and commit to a radical vision to reform Whitehall, divest departments of their power and oversee a new chapter of regional investment alongside constitutional reform and devolution in England as part of our recovery from Covid-19.
But almost a year on since the general election, the Government are backing up, not levelling up on their promises on devolution. The pandemic has triggered a centralising instinct within Whitehall, with Track and Trace the most powerful example of the flaws in this approach. And in the midst of the crisis, there is still a lack of vision as to what progress on we are levelling up to or what progress will look like. This is deeply worrying in areas like the North where many places like Bolton, have been locked down in the equivalent of tier 3 since August.
None of what has been announced will make any material difference to the people who stand to lose most from the crisis now engulfing regions like the North. Unemployment in the North is now at a level not seen since 1993. Jobs density has continually struggled to keep pace with UK averages and the relationship between productivity and wages growth in the North is weaker than the rest of the UK. And even before Covid, levels of poor health, healthy life expectancy, child poverty, all compared unfavourably with the UK and English averages.
The most significant announcement on levelling up to date has come in the form of the £4bn competitive levelling up fund for England as part of the CSR. But it is weak on questions of power and people. The Levelling up fund is supposed to be about investment in the ‘infrastructure of everyday life’ but in doing so levelling up becomes mere augmentation. In his speech the Chancellor referenced ‘better high streets’, ‘more libraries, museums and galleries’; ‘upgraded railway stations’. The harsh reality is that since 2010, the infrastructure of everyday life has been eroded by austerity. This funding will be used to replace, rather than augment.
Furthermore, the fund will be held centrally by Whitehall with devolved allocation to combined or local authorities, or even any need to engage. Similarly, it looks as if the new Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), which replaces European structural funding, will also be controlled by central government. A real blow to any thought that this Government had ambitions for a strengthening of English devolution.
Perhaps most welcome are the announcements on pledge to move departments out of London, including most noticeably the new National infrastructure Bank. But it doesn’t matter how many departments you relocate, if the power is still held at Whitehall, then we are still working under the assumption that the centre knows best.
What we really need now is for the Government to wake up to the realities of everyday life and realise that people are our greatest asset and that investment in better health, education and decent services is foundational not conditional for economic prosperity.
Read IPPR North’s Report – ‘State of the North 2020/21: Power up, level up, rise up’ here.
Sarah Longlands leads IPPR North.