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Levelling-up Agenda in the North

Volume 700: debated on Monday 13 September 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

It is a pleasure to examine in this House a phrase that so many of us have heard over the past year. However, perhaps little real thought has been given as to what it actually means. “Levelling up” is the latest catchphrase, the latest rhetorical device, to emanate from the Government Back and Front Benches, but what does it actually mean and, perhaps more importantly, what should it mean?

After last week’s debacle of national insurance rises and universal credit cuts, many people are questioning whether the Government are serious about helping areas that they see as having been left behind. The truth is that that has never been part of the levelling-up agenda. Levelling up, as the Government see it, is simply to pour steel and concrete into shiny infrastructure projects in communities in the north and in the midlands, but there is no plan to tackle the grotesque inequalities that have been allowed to develop over decades in our country.

It is true that in the odd constituency a number of projects of that nature are being lined up. There have been campaigns to reinstate passenger services on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line since they were removed in 1964. It was the Labour-led Northumberland County Council between 2013 and 2017 that got the ball rolling on the line’s reinstatement, and we are all happy, across every party, to see the work begin to take shape, but restoring passenger services to the line will not help local communities if it takes people away from our high streets into north Tyneside and Newcastle. Nor will it open up the world to those who continue to be attacked by central Government and who are unlikely to be able to afford to use the new line. Nor will it solve the issues of isolation for those in communities such as North Blyth or Cambois who, despite living less than 3 miles from one of the new stations, have a bus service that does not run before 9 am and ends just after 2 pm.

Wansbeck also happens to be one of the very special communities that is set to receive one of the Government’s magical new hospitals. Northgate, near Morpeth, is to have a new wing built. It is simply a transfer of services from another local hospital, but under the new Tory propaganda it counts as a new hospital. For heaven’s sake.

Areas such as the one I represent have not simply been left behind; they have been actively held back, and pouring money into infrastructure, while welcome, is simply not enough. Children from my constituency and from constituencies across the north of England have no less potential than those from more prosperous parts of this nation, but they face so many more obstacles to realising it. Levelling up, as an objective, should be measured by the extent to which it removes those barriers. The less socially mobile an area is, the more likely it is that such communities cannot reach their full potential. According to the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission:

“London and its commuter belt is pulling away from the rest of the country”.

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for his constituency and his area. Does he accept that the whole of the north is in a similar position and that the whole of this younger generation faces a bleak future, as has been indicated by the commission, while they watch the growth of wealth to exponential levels in the City of London and elsewhere? Does he agree that only a massive change—perhaps a wealth tax—to redistribute money to the north is the way forward?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and of course I would agree with those sentiments. I would certainly agree to use some form of wealth tax, which would benefit people in this country.

The commission said that

“three regions—Yorkshire and the Humber, the North East and the West Midlands—have no social mobility hotspots at all.”

In line with what my hon. Friend has just said, that means that a child born in poverty in somewhere like the Wansbeck constituency, which is the sixth worst area for social mobility in England, will very likely live and die in poverty, through no fault of their own.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, according to last year’s Marmot report, life expectancy is significantly lower in the north-east, including in my constituency? Does he agree that we have an awful long way to go, given the decades that we have been left behind?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I will be coming on to the Marmot report later in my contribution, because it is extremely important.

Life expectancy is unbelievably different in various parts of this country and levelling up should be about tackling the likes of life expectancy. Between 2014-15 and 2019-20, the north-east saw child poverty increase from 25% to 37%, with figures in my constituency mirroring the regional average. The Minister might wish to venture an answer as to why children have fewer opportunities and child poverty is on the rise under this Conservative Government. Almost two thirds of the children in my constituency living in poverty come from a working family. Never mind the rhetoric about people not working and about how the only way to get out of poverty is by working—almost two thirds of the kids in my constituency living in poverty come from working families. But the Government are still pushing ahead with their cuts to universal credit that will take money out of these families’ pockets, and more than £7 million a year out of the local economy. They are pursuing a double whammy that will see low-paid families in work taxed to fix childcare, rather than the millionaires and the Tory donors. The Minister has to tell us: does he think that this is fair? How does he think it is fair?

I now come to Michael Marmot’s report, a decade after the 2010 publication. It lays bare the neglect our communities have faced over a decade. As my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) mentioned, life expectancy has stalled, something not seen since the early 1900s, and it remains lowest in the north and the midlands. The regions with industrial pasts and entrenched poverty have become hotspots for low healthy life expectancy. As the Marmot report put it, people in more deprived areas spend

“more of their shorter lives in ill health”

than those in less deprived areas. I am sure the Minister will wish to address the fact that people in constituencies that have been purposely held back have lower life expectancies and lower healthy life expectancies than those in other parts of the country.

It is perhaps a sign of the Government’s cruelty that they are now looking into feedback on plans to align prescription charge exemptions to pensionable age. What a retrograde step that would be. In real terms, they are looking to push the charge of being poorly after a lifetime of hard work on to people who will be ill for longer and live shorter lives.

Given a decade of Tory underfunding in the guise of austerity, it is no surprise that the covid impact has been felt more greatly in poorer communities. Marmot’s most recent report, which focused on Greater Manchester, showed a covid mortality rate 25% higher than England’s average.

NHS waiting lists have exploded over the past decade and have now grown to a record 5.45 million. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the backlog could reach 14 million if urgent action is not taken soon. At the same time, A&E waiting times have grown and the number of people not seen within the four-hour target has been increasing for more than a decade. People in our communities are in poorer health, stuck on waiting lists and being charged for medication. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain to the people in our constituencies why that is the case.

Depression is much more prevalent in northern constituencies. The 10 seats with the highest levels of the disease are mostly in the north-west or the wider north. The 10 seats with the lowest levels of depression are all in London. Deprivation plays a huge part in depression and mental health more generally. Suicide rates for men and women are the highest in Yorkshire and the Humber, while the lowest rates for men are in London. For men living in more deprived communities, the risk of suicide increases, particularly for middle-aged men. How does the Minister plan to use levelling up to tackle these huge issues in our communities?

At one time, having a job was seen as a route out of poverty; sadly, for too many this is not the case. Communities in the north and the midlands have the lowest levels of earnings, higher temporary employment and higher levels of zero-hours contracts, and suffer the scourge of bogus self-employment. All those things have rocketed in the past decade. Minister, how will the Government use levelling up to ban zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment?

In the past year, workers in held-back communities have been disproportionately hit by covid. The north-east had by far the lowest percentage of workers who were able to work from home in the past year and a half. Only a few weeks ago, the north-east chamber of commerce was urging the Government to intervene as unemployment remains among the highest in the UK. With furlough set to be removed at the end of this month, the picture right across the UK is likely to get much worse.

More than a third of all workers in the north-east are classified as key workers. They have carried this country on their backs during this unprecedented pandemic. Care workers, supermarket staff and cleaners are paid less than the real living wage. What are the Government going to do to raise their pay—to level up in the true sense of the term?

In education, a decade of Tory rule has seen per-pupil spending dwindle by nearly 10%. The Institute of Fiscal Studies is clear that pupils in more disadvantaged areas have been hit the hardest—surprise, surprise.

The current plans go nowhere near redressing what has been cut and are disproportionally weighted to more affluent areas. Earlier this year, a Department for Education study revealed that pupils in the north-east fell further behind than those in any other region. Changes to the way pupil premium funding is allocated by amending the date at which free school meals are counted has left one school in my constituency £88,700 worse off. I say to the Minister that, when schools in the most deprived areas are getting fewer funds allocated than those in the more affluent areas, how on earth can that be classed as levelling up? What will he do about it?

The scourge of pensioner poverty is once again on the rise across the UK. It is entirely possible that, given the Government’s drive to increase the state pension age in the relatively near future, average life expectancy in large parts of the UK will be lower than the state pension age. That would hammer people in constituencies such as mine where male life expectancy in good areas hovers around 65 to 70 years of age. What will the Government do to stop those with the lowest healthy life expectancy and the lowest life expectancy from being taken out of a pension system that they have paid into all their lives—week in, week out—from their employment? They might not even get a halfpenny because of the level of life expectancy in their area. They might not get a halfpenny back from what they have put in. Is that levelling up? I do not think that that is really what is meant by levelling up.

The much trumpeted social care plans not only fail workers, but do nothing to protect the assets of people in constituencies such as mine. In many parts, average house prices are much lower than the £100,000 set by the Government. How can levelling up mean that people in held-back constituencies such as mine lose their modest assets that they have worked their whole lives for to pay for care, while those in richer parts of the country pass on their wealth to their children? We could go on and on.

Bus services have been slashed in the north, but the cost of travel has increased massively. In London, bus fares are capped at £1.55, and a day of bus travel in the capital is capped at a total of £4.65 a day. Travelling in my constituency between Morpeth and Ashington, which is roughly 6 miles, costs £6.40.

I thank my good friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate. In my first Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister assured me that he would look into the details of plans to extend the Metrolink tram system into my constituency of Stockport. I have not heard a word since. Does he agree that we need action and investment from the Government rather than empty promises and warm words?

Absolutely. I thank my friend for that intervention. I think I mentioned early on in my contribution that levelling should not be rhetorical. Levelling up is a serious issue and we need to know how the Government will actually level up.

On climate change, the costs are being passed on to working families, while those who continue to pollute are getting away scot free. As I say, I could go on and on. The phrase “levelling up” is not going away, but it means little in the mouths of Conservatives more interested in pointing at shiny infrastructure projects than in the prosperous futures of people in communities that have, for so long, been held back. The funding being considered is simply not enough; it is a sticking plaster over a severed limb. By almost all measures, those areas of our country that have been held back by the Government trail those from more prosperous parts of the country. This has been further exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis and its dismal handling by the Tory Government. We simply cannot afford for levelling up to be abused in the same manner, with cosy contracts for infrastructure investment handed to the same people while at the same time poverty, education, health outcomes and opportunities continue to suffer.

I do not think anyone would argue that billionaires should be profiting from a crisis like a pandemic, but during the course of the last 18 months the global wealth of billionaires rose by more than £5 trillion. So when Labour wins the next election, let us have a backdated super tax on the spivs and Tory donors who have enriched themselves with Government cash, pocketed through the last year of hell while ordinary people have paid the price.

As Frances O’Grady said today at the TUC,

“levelling up means nothing if they freeze key workers’ pay, slash Universal Credit, and the number of kids in poverty soars.”

I echo her challenge to the Government: if levelling up is more than rhetoric, it must mean a levelling up in the workplace, in our communities and ending the scourge of child poverty.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing this important debate. He has highlighted a number of issues that I agree are of utmost importance to the north and his constituents. I also thank other hon. Members for their interventions. I am pleased to have the chance to talk about our levelling-up agenda and specifically about levelling up in the north of England. It is a goal that is shared by the hon. Member for Wansbeck, me, everyone across the Government and, I am sure, everyone across the House.

Levelling up means ensuring that opportunity is spread more evenly across the country and that investment is targeted more fairly, so that we can build a fairer, stronger and more united kingdom after this pandemic. Tackling the regional imbalances and inequality that the hon. Gentleman spoke about is at the heart of this Government’s manifesto and what we are trying to achieve.

My hon. Friend has touched on the important issue of rebalancing inequalities. Transport and the regeneration of our town centres are key to this. I therefore thank the Government for the electrification plans between Bolton and Wigan and for their huge commitment to Bolton’s towns fund.

My hon. Friend is a champion for his constituents. I am grateful to him for putting that point on the record. We are trying to achieve improvement in living standards and to grow the private sector, especially in those parts of the country where it is weak, such as the former industrial areas that have been left behind by Governments of all colours for far too long.

The Prime Minister spoke in July about the Government’s central mission, which is to level up and unite our country. The hon. Member for Wansbeck is quite right to speak about the issue so passionately, in the way that we also have. We have made levelling up a central part of our work and our economic strategy, and will publish a White Paper later this year, setting out bold, new, substantive policy interventions to tackle some of the key challenges.

Wherever people are born or grow up, they should have the opportunity to succeed in life without having to leave their home town to do it. But we cannot achieve that goal without recognising the significant economic, social and regional disparities that currently exist. Some 50% of the population of London have graduate-level qualifications, compared with 33% in the north of England. The hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) was right to point out that healthy life expectancy in Blackpool, in Middlesbrough and in her constituency can be up to 10 years shorter than in some parts of the south-east of England. Those are just a few examples of the inequalities that we want to address, and which are a central focus for my Department and the Government as a whole.

We are continuing significant investment to this cause, with a once-in-a-generation wave of funding into areas that have been historically underserved for far too long—not just in England, but also in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Our £4.8 billion levelling-up fund and £220 million community renewal fund are both UK-wide, ensuring that all parts of the United Kingdom benefit from this investment. The levelling up fund will be investing in that infrastructure, which we believe is so important in different parts of the country. It makes a real difference to town centres and to high streets in bringing jobs and opportunity to different parts of our country, whether that is about upgrading local transport or investing in cultural and heritage assets. In the north of England, 38 places, including Northumberland, have been identified as top priority areas for the fund, and each of those areas will be receiving capacity funding as well.

The community renewal fund, meanwhile, is supporting communities and people in need of support, piloting programmes and new approaches to target investment in skills, communities, places and local businesses, and supporting people into employment—many of the things that the hon. Gentleman talked about. We have signed heads of terms on all our 101 town deals, bringing £2.5 billion of investment into towns across the country. Of those, 43 are in the north of England, with over £1 billion of investment combined. Take the work that we are doing in Barrow. The £25 million towns deal in Barrow includes a new learning quarter that will transform the local educational offer in the town. Almost one in four adults in that town have no qualifications at all, but this project will equip a new generation with the skills that they need to compete in a truly global economy. This is levelling up in action and what we want to see replicated right across the country.

However, it is not just about the investment. It is about ensuring that we have strong, local leadership that helps to deliver—that powers productivity and growth in different parts of the country, backed up by strong leaders fighting for their areas on the national stage. That is why we are committed to levelling up powers across the north too, building on the biggest transfer of powers to local areas since the second world war. Following the elections in May in West Yorkshire, over 63% of the north’s population is now represented by combined authority mayors. That is what we are trying to achieve—empowering local communities and devolving skills, money and power to local leaders to address these local blackspots to support and drive the regeneration of town centres and high streets and permanently rebalance some of the regional imbalances in our country. Local leaders have shown what is possible in that regard.

The levelling-up agenda spreads right across the different parts of the work we are doing. In Blyth, we invested over £20 million as part of the towns fund to help to foster regeneration, stimulate investment and deliver vital infrastructure that is so needed. That is in addition to the £11 million through the future high streets fund that we are delivering there too. Through the getting building fund, we are supporting offshore renewable projects in Blyth, while the borderlands growth deal aims to bring fresh investment to the borderlands area. As part of that deal, Northumberland will receive over £12 million to support growth and investment, and a further £17 million has been committed to support the green energy sector in the borderlands too, subject to the final business case sign-off. On the connectivity the hon. Gentleman talked about, we can see the £4 million of investment to upgrade to superfast broadband delivery to homes and businesses, while the deal is also supporting projects that focus on heritage.

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that creating an equitable future for children, regardless of where they grew up, is a key part of levelling up that requires a holistic approach from right across Government. That is why some of the funds that I have been talking about are so important. We are delivering in skills, communities, places and businesses, supporting people into employment. Both getting people into work and progressing them in work is a key part of what we are doing, working with the Department for Work and Pensions in delivering its plan for jobs. The DWP has local teams that specialise in partnership working, supporting people just as he talked about, creating links to communities to understand their needs and provide specific—

I cannot give way because the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) took too much of the time—I do apologise.

Our supporting families programme through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is just one example of how we are working together, bringing agencies together to deliver for families who need that extra support. We are boosting jobs and investing in communities, including by establishing freeports right across the country, with eight in England and three in the north of England—in Teesside, Humber and Liverpool city region. That will create jobs and address some of the imbalances right across the country.

The north is at the forefront of our work to drive net zero, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck talked about, as the home of innovation work in carbon, capture and storage and so many other areas, too. Whether it is the work we are doing with the Department for Education on the “Skills for Jobs” White Paper and the lifetime skills guarantee, our devolution of the adult education budget—more than £308 million this year—or the money we are redistributing for the local government finance settlement, with £240 million of equalisation this year, we are straining every sinew to support the north of England and level up right across the country.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions today. I will reflect on the important points that have been made and which I realise have been raised in the right spirit, and I am always happy to discuss them further. We believe that all parts of the UK should have the means to positively shape their own future. That is more important now than ever, as we look forward to the road to recovery.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.