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Levelling Up White Paper

Volume 816: debated on Monday 15 November 2021


Asked by

We aim to publish by the end of the year. However, our priority is to have a White Paper which meets the scale of ambition and sets out our transformative agenda to deliver real long-term change across the United Kingdom. Levelling up is at the heart of this Government’s agenda to build back better after the pandemic. The recent spending review showed the significant action we are already taking to empower local leaders, boost living standards, spread opportunity and restore local pride.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to levelling up and to reducing some of the inequalities in our country. But if levelling up is to be more than a slogan, does it not need clearly stated objectives, transparency in the allocation of resources, and measurements so that we can monitor progress? Is my noble friend able to tick those three boxes?

My Lords, in July, the Prime Minister set out that we will have made progress in levelling up when we have begun to raise living standards, spread opportunity, improved our public services and restored people’s sense of pride in their community. The forthcoming White Paper will set out the further detail, so that I hope we will be able to tick my noble friend’s three boxes.

My Lords, as the official Social Mobility Commission has made clear, levelling up is about people as well as places. Why therefore, to quote the commission, is England the only nation in the UK without a strategy to address child poverty?

My Lords, levelling up covers all these issues. We have an approach to child poverty and take those issues very seriously indeed. More detail on these and other matters will of course be outlined in the forthcoming White Paper.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Young, on criteria, I note that the levelling-up fund, the towns fund and the community renewal fund all prioritise GVA over income deprivation as a metric to rank places according to need. This can lead areas with low economic output but affluent households to rank above places with high-value employment but low local incomes. Will the White Paper clarify whether the priority for levelling up is to help the poorest people wherever they live or to target the least productive localities? How do the Government want to be judged—on how individuals are faring, or on how far left-behind areas improve?

My Lords, we need to understand that different funds have different priorities. The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund seeks to improve infrastructure and productivity, while the UK shared prosperity fund will deal with the issues around skills and replaces much of the funding that we saw through the EU structural funds. We need to see that in the round and, of course, the White Paper will provide further detail.

My Lords, with the much-awaited publishing of the White Paper on levelling up, growing the private sector is what we all want to see in progress. As we see businesses planning at record levels of digital investment, does the Minister agree that priority must be given to reforming the skills system to better align with employers’ demands because of the acute skills shortage?

I agree entirely with my noble friend. We do not want anyone to have to leave somewhere they love in order to have a truly fulfilling career. That is why we are investing £3.8 billion in skills by 2024-25 and have just set up our new adult numeracy programme, Multiply, to get hundreds of thousands more adults with functional numeracy skills across the United Kingdom.

Minister, successive Governments have grappled with this one under various names and the consensus is that they have largely failed. Do the Government recognise that the fragmented system of funding and bidding is part of this failure? Recently, the LGA found evidence that £23 billion of public funds aimed at regeneration were fragmented across 70 different funding streams and managed by 22 different departments or agencies. Are there any signs that the Government will change this scattergun approach?

My Lords, just because previous Governments have failed does not mean that this Government will not succeed. However, I take on board the importance of ensuring that there is appropriate streamlining and that we do not have a scattergun approach to funding. The point is well made.

I declare my role as chair of the Commission on Alcohol Harms. Have the Government included alcohol harm as the top priority in the levelling-up agenda, given that, regarding place, alcohol-related mortality is over 20% higher in the north-east of England than the English average? Alcohol-related violence is up to five and a half times more prevalent in lower socio-economic groups, and alcohol consumption is linked to poorer child development and poorer general well-being.

My Lords, I expected this Question to go in any number of directions. It is important to address the barriers for people getting on in life. We are looking to spread opportunities and, of course, we need to address issues such as alcohol harm, which the noble Baroness has raised.

I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA. Will income disparity be addressed in the forthcoming White Paper, given that people in London are paid £16,150 more per year on average than people in Burnley? Do the Government plan to level up wages?

My Lords, I am not sure that is the way to think about these problems. We need to recognise that, as well as the income disparity, there is the cost disparity. Admittedly, living in a great capital city comes at a price. We want to level up some of the areas that have been left behind. That does not mean we want a reduction in income in places such as London. We need to ensure that we lift all boats—that is the philosophy behind levelling up.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that financial inclusion—that is, ensuring that people have access to essential banking services and financial products that are fairly priced—is particularly important for areas that the Government are looking to level up, and that incorporating a clear financial inclusion strategy into the levelling-up agenda could make a big difference? Can the Minister say whether Treasury and DWP Ministers who lead on financial inclusion are part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda?

My Lords, financial inclusion is very important in particular areas, and it is important in addressing it to bind together different departments. That is why there is a new levelling-up task force under the leadership of Andy Haldane that brings together the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Cabinet Office, precisely because we need that Whitehall join-up.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how he believes that levelling up can be squared with cancelling the eastern leg of HS2? Is he aware that if HS2 East is cancelled, it will take four times longer to get to Sheffield and Leeds, and six times longer to get to Durham and Newcastle, than it takes to get to Birmingham? Does he appreciate that this will introduce a new east-west divide into the country, which will be the equivalent of our Victorian forebears deciding to build the railways in the western part of the country while leaving the eastern part of the country with the canals?

My Lords, I recognise the noble Lord’s expertise on high-speed rail. However, I do not want to comment on the specific scheme. The most important thing for the Government is to back up the investment we have in transport infrastructure in our city regions, and we have committed £5.7 billion for transport settlements for those regions. Of course, decisions about high-speed rail will be taken in due course.