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Covid-19: Levelling-up Agenda

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 12 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the consequences of their policies in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic on their levelling up agenda in England.

The Government recognise the significant impact of Covid-19 on every region and nation of the UK and remain committed to levelling up opportunity across the country. In recognition of this, we have announced unprecedented support for business, workers and local authorities across the UK, including support for 2.7 million people through the Self-employment Income Support Scheme, and have extended the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which has already supported 9.6 billion jobs and provided over £62 billion in business support loans.

My Lords, the Northern Health Science Alliance reported two days ago that Covid has made economic inequalities worse, with reductions in mental well-being in the north costing the economy £5 billion a year, and that more people in the north have died. The Northern Powerhouse Partnership is calling for a northern economic recovery plan. The LGA says that in the north, where core services have already been cut by up to half in some of the poorest areas, more cuts will just make regional inequalities worse. South Yorkshire’s mayor, Dan Jarvis, wrote yesterday in the House magazine:

“The brutal reality is that the North is now on course for levelling down, not levelling up.”

Is it not now time for a huge transfer to the north of resources of all kinds and the powers to use them?

My Lords, I think that we have seen a significant transfer of power to the north; Dan Jarvis, the mayor in Yorkshire, is an example of that. The Government are absolutely committed to levelling up and to reducing this inequality. That is why, for example, we have the £3.6 billion Towns Fund, which supports at least 45 places in the northern powerhouse and 30 places in the Midlands engine region.

My Lords, I ask the Minister to make clear to her colleague the former Northern Powerhouse Minister in another place the huge contribution that culture has made to the regeneration of Gateshead and Salford, for example, and that football and culture are not mutually exclusive—it is possible to support both. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will soon publish a strategy for levelling up and, in the light of Covid, have the Government been restructured in order to tackle the problems for the north post Covid and the implementation of such a levelling-up strategy?

My Lords, the government structures in place at the moment are focused on tackling Covid, but support for levelling up and recovery across the country is at the heart of everything that the Government do. It was at the heart of the Chancellor’s plan for jobs, announced in the summer, which includes a Getting Building Fund of up to £1 billion to support local economic projects to get jobs and recovery back in local economies.

My Lords, it is unfortunate that the tiered system of local virus control led to political turf wars. This simply divides communities, as was seen with the handling of the Greater Manchester case. Can the Minister reassure the House that, in future, changes will not simply be imposed on historically deprived areas of the north of England with last-minute government press announcements at midnight and that local elected representative will be fully involved in the decision-making process and therefore share ultimate decision-making?

My Lords, the Government have been committed to having local leaders involved in decision-making at every step of the process. That has sometimes led to a more complicated process, which I think the noble Lord has pointed to, but we always endeavour to have joint decision-making wherever possible.

My Lords, it is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is having a huge economic impact on businesses and livelihoods throughout the country. However, some regions are having to live through tougher and longer restrictions than others. I know that this Government are committed to their levelling-up agenda. Can my noble friend the Minister outline what extra support will be given to these hardest-hit communities?

My Lords, since the pandemic, the Government have provided £6.4 billion of additional funding to local authorities, but, in addition to this, for those areas that faced restrictions prior to the second lockdown, extra support was put in place for businesses that were closed or had their business severely affected by those restrictions. Local authorities got additional funding for grants to support the local economy.

My Lords, rumours emanating from who knows where in government are talking about cutting back HS2 phase 2b—the bit that goes from Birmingham to Leeds. This would mean that the journey times from Toton would go from 27 to 85 minutes for Leeds and from 93 to 106 minutes for Newcastle. How is this sort of thing compatible with government protestations about levelling up?

My Lords, I do not pay too much attention to rumours circulating, and the Government remain committed to the High Speed 2 project.

What is the noble Baroness’s assessment of the Treasury’s 80:20 rule, which decrees that 80% of funding for Homes England goes to the areas where homes are most unaffordable? This naturally ends up being the south and south-east of England. Will she accept that, when 46 of the red wall seats are only eligible for 20% of the funding for homes, this creates a blatant unfairness for the north? Can she tell the House what Government are doing to resolve this?

I reassure the noble Baroness that funds from the £400 million brownfield fund announced in the Budget will unlock up to 24,000 high-quality homes across the country, with 90% allocated immediately to seven mayoral combined authorities to allow them to begin delivering projects that will benefit local areas.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, post Covid, there will be cities like mine—Leicester—that will be looking for investors to come and invest, given the loss of jobs? Does she agree that digital platforms are the key to getting most of our young people skilled? Will she encourage businesses, particularly disruptors from the digital platforms, to come and look at cities like Leicester to skill up and invest in young people and others?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend, and one of the things that the Government are doing to support digital skills is setting up a limited series of digital boot camp trailblazers to support local regions and employers to fill in-demand vacancies. We will look to roll out a national programme next year that will learn the lessons from this.

The Alliance for Full Employment and Resolution Foundation research shows that there are now around 1 million 16 to 24 year-olds not in work. The alliance is predicting a need for 1.5 million training places by the end of the academic year. The Kickstart Scheme will not help anyone under 25 who has lost their job at the end of October, as they will not be eligible for help until next May. Does the Minister agree that the extension to the furlough scheme offers a breathing space to redesign the Kickstart Scheme in order to provide meaningful work or training in conjunction with local authorities and employers? Will the Government meet the Alliance for Full Employment to discuss its plan to get Britain levelling up?

My Lords, the Kickstart Scheme is specifically designed to support young people at risk of long-term unemployment, but that is not the only support that the Government are putting in place for those who may have lost their jobs or are struggling to find work, having finished their studying or training. For example, we have put £1.2 billion in to significantly expand and enhance our work-search support, including doubling the number of work coaches. That kind of support, alongside support for skills and apprenticeships, is available to young people in advance of them being at risk of longer-term unemployment.

My Lords, Covid has accelerated modern trends such as remote working, and there is a great deal of education and training needed for that. Should levelling up not include a focus on digital trends, aiming to leap-frog post-industrial areas into the new era of work?

My Lords, the Government are absolutely committed to supporting digital trends and jobs. I just mentioned one of the training schemes that we have in place to support that.