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Levelling Up Across the UK

Volume 714: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2022

The levelling-up White Paper sets out a clear plan to level up every corner of the United Kingdom, including a mission to increase productivity and improve living standards in every part of the UK by 2030. We will do this through the record funding allocated in the 2021 spending review, including £1.6 billion for the next generation of the British Business Bank’s regional investment funds. That sits alongside significant investment in communities through the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, and giving local areas a greater say in investment, working in partnership with the Government through the £2.6 billion UK shared prosperity fund.

Parts of our inner cities suffer deprivation, including in my constituency in north Kensington. Does my right hon. Friend agree that levelling up is about bringing forward all our left-behind communities, whether inner cities, coastal communities or the north, and, I add rather cheekily, will he support my levelling-up fund bid for step-free access to Ladbroke Grove tube station?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question; she is an outstanding champion for Kensington and, as she rightly says, it is not the case, as is sometimes portrayed, that the levelling-up fund does not have real importance for London and the south-east because, as we know, there are pockets of deprivation across this country and it is vital that we address them. Over £200 million was allocated in the first round of the levelling-up fund for London and the south-east, and clearly my hon. Friend’s council may wish to consider making a bid for the fund’s next iteration when that opens.

The east midlands has consistently been at the bottom of the charts for public and private sector investment. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he sees devolution as a key mechanism to level up, so the east midlands must surely be at the heart of that agenda. We are negotiating with the Government now in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, but will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that these will not be second-class deals and the east midlands deals will have the same finance and clout as previous deals have had?

I really enjoyed my recent visit to Nottinghamshire to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. We are clear that devolution sits at the heart of our levelling-up mission and we have said that every part of England that wants a devolution deal can have one by 2030. We want those deals to have a sensible geography, and the strongest and most accountable leadership possible, and I am really encouraged that leaders in Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—including, of course, my hon. Friend—have brought together a really exciting package of proposals. We look forward to coming to them in due course.

In recent years, the west midlands has economically outperformed the east midlands—apart from, of course, my constituency of North West Leicestershire. To what extent does my right hon. Friend believe that is due to the west midlands benefiting from its mayoralty structure? What help can the Treasury give to the east midlands to ensure that we level up with our neighbour?

I pay great tribute to the work that Andy Street has done as Mayor of the West Midlands to drive economic outperformance. I am a convinced believer in the merits of mayoral devolution, which is the best way of ensuring that levelling up is delivered at the fastest possible pace on the ground. I look forward to looking at proposals from the east midlands to ensure that we can unlock as much opportunity there as possible.

Hertford and Stortford lies at the heart of the London-Stansted-Cambridge innovation corridor, which is key to helping my constituency and our region address its pockets of deprivation. Will my right hon. Friend outline how his Department is working to attract more innovation-based businesses, particularly in life sciences, to the area?

I share my hon. Friend’s passion for the UK’s world-leading life sciences sector. That is why we have invested £5 billion in health research and development, including for delivery of our life sciences vision, as well as £60 million for the life sciences innovative manufacturing fund and £200 million in the life sciences investment programme, all of which institutions in Hertfordshire can benefit from.

I am sure that the Chief Secretary will agree that, for levelling up to work well, there is a need for more jobs linked to exports to be created across the UK. With export growth in the UK lagging behind that of every other rich nation, why did he and his colleagues sign off cuts in funding to the North East England chamber of commerce to promote exports from that region?

I agree that a flourishing export sector is vital. That is, of course, why we are so pleased to be delivering innovative policies in the north-east such as a freeport on Teesside, which is a great example of how we will bolster the export strengths that exist for our current and future employers. We clearly want to work closely with all partners, including the chambers of commerce, who do an excellent job, but it is absolutely not just about measures in grants to any individual institution. Our ambition is to create a high-growth, high-wage economy, and exports sit at the centre of that. Our actions speak loudly about our total commitment to that.

The Government said they would prioritise closing the gap in pay, employment and productivity, yet since the Prime Minister took office average monthly earnings in every single north-east constituency have fallen even further behind those in London. Can the Government see that telling families to learn how to cook and to work more hours while forcing cash-strapped local authorities to bid competitively for small pots of money will not rebalance our economy? We need a much greater focus on creating and boosting jobs in those areas that really need them.

I know and obviously share the hon. Lady’s passion for the north-east. The enormous success of our plan for jobs is something that we ought to be celebrating today. We have had the fantastic news that unemployment is at its lowest level since 1975, which is an enormous achievement and one that we should all be collectively delighted by. We face global inflationary pressures, which are a serious challenge not just for this country but the eurozone, America and, indeed, the entire developed world as we both recover from covid and handle the consequences of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and we are absolutely focused on rectifying that through a concerted programme of action. Obviously, we have put together a £22 billion package of support for households, and we will take future steps as the situation warrants.

According to an independent analysis of the Government’s own 12 metrics for measuring progress in levelling up, Bradford East is behind on almost every single one, with lower pay, productivity, Government spending, transport investment, school grades and life expectancy. I am perplexed by how the Minister can stand there and tell us that he is serious about levelling up when the Government refuse to do anything to level up places such as Bradford East.

The whole point is that that is precisely what we are not doing. We have created a West Midlands mayoralty which is channelling huge amounts of public money into supporting—[Interruption.] Sorry, the West Yorkshire mayoralty. The point stands. We have created a West Yorkshire mayoralty which is designed to drive forward growth and opportunity in that region. We have a whole programme of action, from the levelling-up fund and our wider commitments around jobs and growth, which the hon. Gentleman knows, as well as I do, will make a massive difference to the future of Bradford and the rest of West Yorkshire in the years ahead.

The UK Government’s own website states that levelling up is a moral, social and economic programme right across Government, so can I ask the Minister where is the moral argument in people not being able to feed their kids? Where is the social argument in people not being able to heat their homes? And where on earth is the economic argument in people having no money in their pockets?

Levelling up is a social and moral mission. I believe very strongly that it is vital that we close the gap between the more successful parts of the UK and the rest. I represent a constituency that sits at the heart of that process. On the hon. Gentleman’s point on the cost of living, we have put together a £22 billion package of support, including a £9 billion commitment specifically on energy bills, but we are absolutely clear that we do not solve an inflationary crisis by throwing money at the problem, as that could worsen the issue we are seeking to address. The Chancellor will keep all these issues under close review. [Interruption.] I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he most certainly does. We will bring forward a programme of measures at such time that they will make the right difference in a targeted way, which, as I say, does not make worse the very problem that we all need to solve.

Last week, Bloomberg published a report that showed that, on the Government’s own chosen 12 measures of levelling up since the Prime Minister took office, most parts of the country are either falling even further behind London and the south-east or have made no progress, including every single constituency in the west midlands. That includes salaries, home affordability, inward investment, transport spending and levels of crime all going backwards. Why is levelling up so far failing to deliver?

The right hon. Gentleman raises the Bloomberg report. We have to recognise, when we look at this issue, that levelling up is a decades-long project for reversing things that are institutionally extremely challenging in terms of the striking geographical inequalities that have arisen under successive Governments and which this Government are determined to address. The levelling-up White Paper, published this spring, puts in place a framework for the Government to work directly with people and places to help address those disparities. We will be held to account with an annual report to monitor our progress. What I would say is that the people of the west midlands made their views very clear last year when they re-elected Andy Street as their Mayor, just as they made their views very clear on Teesside when they re-elected Ben Houchen. They can see progress. They are realistic—none of this is easy and none of this is going to be an instant turnaround—but they are clear that we have a plan to deliver it and they are behind that.

The Conservatives have been in office for 12 years; they were not elected last week. This is the self-declared central mission of the Government. Tackling regional inequality is a good aim. Communities like the one I represent in the Black Country made the last industrial revolution and they can make the next one too if they are given a platform on which to stand, but now, with the Bank of England Governor warning of apocalyptic rises in food prices and a further likely steep rise in energy bills in the autumn, what will the Government do to reverse the failures outlined in the damning report last week, and bridge the grand canyon between the Prime Minister’s rhetoric on these things and the reality on the ground?

The levelling-up White Paper is a comprehensive package of measures designed to ensure we can deliver on our ambitious aims in this place. The Queen’s Speech, which we are debating this week, further demonstrates our commitment to making that a reality, including, notably, through the establishment in law of the UK infrastructure bank. It is clearly the case, as I say, that none of these problems are simple to address. We have to be honest on both sides of the House that both Labour and Conservative-led Governments have failed to narrow those disparities. We have a plan which I am confident will deliver meaningful change in short order and over the medium to long term make a transformative difference to communities.