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Levelling-up Agenda

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 15 September 2021

Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and to give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Government’s Levelling-up agenda.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to see Members and the Minister here today. I would completely understand it if the Minister wants to keep her phone on. I am sure we all wish her well with the reshuffle. We will see what the next hour or so brings.

I declare an interest: I am a metro Mayor. I have always supported the Prime Minister’s intention to level up the country, but it is outrageous that the UK has the worst regional inequality of any comparable developed nation. The gap is stark, from life expectancy to income, from unemployment to education, from productivity to health, and covid is making it worse. That is not a small thing. It is an injustice—a stain on our country—and tackling it should be a matter of raging and persistent urgency, not some optional extra in the national political agenda. I continue to want to work with the Government to do that, but as the Minister knows well, it is not words that count but action.

To be fair, it is not that the Government have done nothing. I acknowledge the help that we have had through the transforming cities fund and the getting building fund, among others. There have been some welcome policy shifts too, such as devolving adult education, reforming the Green Book and creating the UK Infrastructure Bank, but tackling deep-rooted inequality requires a special sort of intervention. It demands scope, endurance, resources, a national strategy and local leadership.

So far, the Government have fallen well short. First, transformative ambition needs transformative resources. Instead, we have old money relabelled as new and distributed with more concern for politics than progress. The flagship levelling-up fund, worth £1.3 billion a year on average, replaces a local growth fund that was worth 14% more, and half its budget this year is taken from the towns fund. Even worse, the levelling-up fund puts the Chancellor’s Richmondshire constituency, ranked 251 out of 317 in England’s deprivation index, in a higher category of need than my constituency of Barnsley, which is ranked 38. That is no one-off. A third of English areas due to get funds are not in the top third of the most deprived regions.

Likewise, the shared prosperity fund is supposed to match the historical EU support that it is designed to replace, but EU funds were due to increase sharply this year, so many areas, including my own, will miss out. I ask the Minister: will the Government compensate us for that? Almost a third of the English areas selected to receive money under the SPF’s precursor programme, the community renewal fund, are not among the most deprived local areas. Almost all of them are entirely represented by Conservative MPs. Meanwhile, of the 45 places receiving a share of the towns fund spending, 39 are represented by Conservative MPs. The Public Accounts Committee found that the fund’s earlier selection process was not impartial.

We are starting to see a pattern develop, and it gets worse when we consider that these politicised, fragmented and inadequate funds also come against a major backdrop of cuts elsewhere. As we saw in the Chamber this afternoon, the Government are intent on ending the £20 uplift in universal credit, cutting income for 5.5 million families by more than £1,000 a year and taking billions out of the economies of more deprived areas. That of course follows the £15 billion of cuts to local government in the past decade, which has fallen hardest on the poorest areas.

The Government trumpet their spending through the national infrastructure strategy, but it is unclear how much will go to deprived areas and when it will arrive. What we do know is that the Government are wobbling in their commitment to two of the biggest projects in the north: HS2’s eastern leg and Northern Powerhouse Rail. For them to be postponed or scaled back would make any claim of concern for levelling up utterly risible. I ask the Minister to assure us today of the Government’s commitment to those two huge projects.

When the debate concludes, I will hit “send” on South Yorkshire’s bid for £660 million of city region sustainable transport settlement funding. If the Government want to end the long-standing bias in transport investment towards more affluent areas, I hope that they will back that bid in full, and those of other relatively deprived areas such as mine.

It is not just how much money and where it goes that matters; it is how it is spent. It is alarming that the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy described levelling-up policy and funding as

“lacking in any overall coherent strategic purpose”

with little clarity about who is responsible, how progress will be measured or, indeed, what the objectives are.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this forward. The Government’s policy of levelling up is to benefit all the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, we do not see that coming our way in Northern Ireland. We believe that, if it is a levelling-up agenda, we should benefit as well. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be projects across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to benefit us all, whether they are specific projects, or businesses that can qualify for projects that are happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

I am grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows I have a long-standing interest in Northern Ireland. He is right to make the point that every corner of the United Kingdom should seek to benefit from investment coming out of national Government. The Prime Minister has spoken on occasion about levelling up the whole of the country. The reality is that there are particular areas that are more deprived and require additional support to unlock their potential. I absolutely concede that, along with my own region, Northern Ireland is definitely one of those.

There is a very good opportunity for the Government to demonstrate their commitment to do this through the forthcoming White Paper, not just in terms of setting out a plan but linking it, mindful of the COP conference taking place this year, to the green transformation that we need, as well as to other priorities. Critically, that national strategy from national Government must be based around local leadership. Levelling up cannot succeed without local knowledge, engagement and accountability. Levelling up cannot be done from desks in Westminster and Whitehall.

Yet the reality is that, almost everywhere, the Government’s model is to force local authorities to scrap for inadequate, restricted, one-off pots of cash, designed according to the Government’s priorities and not to ours. It seems a long time since the general election, but I remember the Conservative manifesto specifically promised to

“trust people and communities to make the decisions that are right for them”.

They need to have the confidence now to mean what they said then.

In South Yorkshire, we are not waiting for that. With our local authority leaders, we have developed what we call a plan for the north, which sets out a road map to transformation. I invite the Minister to look carefully at the detail of that plan. In South Yorkshire, we have fantastic assets to act as catapults for development, such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre but, to translate that into wider change, we need funding and support for a comprehensive local industrial strategy, from skills to finance.

At the same time, levelling up cannot be just about business and infrastructure. It needs to be about investing in early years and education, in housing and health. It is about tax reform and funding local government. It is about the environment and public services. Arts and culture is another good example, which can bring major economic benefits—more than £5 of revenue for every pound of public investment. That also helps to improve quality of life and perception of a region. In the very near future in South Yorkshire, we will lay out how we will support our creative sector with much more than just words. That is the test for any part of levelling up. For all the grand talk, the Government’s actions so far suggest a limited agenda, yet they still have the chance to change that. The forthcoming comprehensive spending review is where we will know once and for all whether the Government’s commitment to reducing regional inequality is serious or merely cynical. There are six weeks to decide which it is. I very much hope that they do the right thing. One way or another, it is by their actions that they will be judged.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate, and I welcome the Minister to her place. I draw attention to the fact that I am on the Lowestoft place board, and Lowestoft has secured a towns deal.

Levelling up is vital. It is about giving hope to local communities that have been ignored for too long. It is about tackling deep pockets of deprivation and giving people the opportunity to realise their full potential. I shall briefly outline three issues of concern. The first is the importance of investing in people. Infrastructure is incredibly important, but there needs to be a focus on investing in skills and employment support to help people proceed from low-skilled, low-wage jobs and to climb the ladder to rewarding and better-paid jobs. It is necessary to invest in accessible childcare to allow people to better access and then stay in the labour market.

Secondly, although I support the freeports initiative, I urge the Government to stick with and improve enterprise zones. Like other enterprise zones all around the country, the Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone, set up in 2012, has been incredibly successful. By reallocating the existing footprint of the enterprise zone around Lowestoft port, over 300 new jobs can be created, 40 new businesses can be supported, and between £1 million and £3 million of retained rates can be generated.

Finally, I remain incredibly concerned about the methodology for prioritising investment for the levelling-up and community renewal funds, which I fear is flawed. Lowestoft has deep pockets of deprivation very similar to neighbouring Great Yarmouth, but, unlike the latter, it is not a priority place. I do not begrudge Great Yarmouth, but the methodology for assessing need on a district-wide basis fails to properly identify where additional support is needed.

I discussed the issue earlier this week with the Arts Council, East Suffolk Council and Suffolk County Council. The flaw could be addressed if the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport approve the provision of Active Lives data on a far more local and pinpointed basis. I also urge the Minister to look closely at the methodology proposed by the Salvation Army, which is detailed in its report on the levelling-up agenda and highlights how the current approach fails to properly take into account the considerable challenges that coastal communities, such as Waveney and Lowestoft, face.

In conclusion, the Government have been very successful in identifying the importance of levelling up, which has struck a chord with the public. However, to ensure that we deliver on that commitment and that the public are not left disillusioned, a more refined, joined-up and people-focused approach is required. That is needed if the strategy is to work, with all communities around the UK being given the opportunity to truly catch up and claim their fair share of the proceeds of growth.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing the debate, which is certainly important. Levelling up is indeed an important Government policy, but for something that is so central to the Government’s vision, it is sometimes difficult to see exactly what it means in practice and, critically, whether the lofty ambitions set out in the big speeches actually lead to delivery on the ground and bring about the kinds of changes that my community wants to see.

Whatever yardstick the Government use, what people see changing for the better in their areas will be the real determinant of whether there has been any success in levelling up. Many of my constituents would say that a tangible improvement to Ellesmere Port town centre would constitute a very good start in that respect. So many people want to have pride in their town and see it thriving, so I am pleased to say that, alongside my local council, we have put in a bid for the levelling-up fund to enable us to make a start on rejuvenating our town centre.

Of course, that is just a start, and much more will be needed. The question hangs in the air: if the bid is unsuccessful, what is plan B? Should not everyone get a slice of the pie? Should not levelling up be a policy that benefits everyone, not just the lucky winners of a municipal beauty contest? Should we not empower local communities to deliver on their own priorities and provide them with the tools and resources to do so, rather than asking them to jump through multiple hoops in what is a very competitive bidding process?

The town centre in Ellesmere Port has been struggling for a long time. Like in many other towns, the rise of the internet and changes in shopping habits, which have been accelerated by the pandemic, have led to shops closing down on an almost weekly basis. We would absolutely welcome a cash injection from the levelling-up fund, but it needs to address not just the symptoms but the causes of decline. Where are the plans to tackle the massive disparities between north and south in employment opportunities, earnings and life expectancy? Why do so many young people feel that they have to leave where they live and move to a city, just to get opportunities?

It is a scandal that where someone is born and to whom they are born are still some of the biggest determinants of their life chances. If levelling up is to be the truly transformative project that its biggest supporters claim it to be, it has to be so much more than an annual Westminster competition on Westminster’s terms. Give power and resources back to local communities—they know what they want, and they will be around for the long term in order to deliver it. People already feel that they do not have the power to take decisions about the most important things in their lives, such as whether a local hospital should stay open, where a new school might go, and even how often the buses run. To empower local communities, we need a different approach—no more crumbs from the table.

We do not want politically motivated, short-term fixes that have only the electoral cycle in mind. We need a new, long-term approach that actually attempts to tackle the underlying issues, and that really empowers and enables our local communities by giving them the responsibility, power and resources to shape their own futures, allowing them to finally take back control. We need reinvigorated places where people spend time as well as money, and there needs to be much more joined-up thinking about how the world will change in the future.

The move to all-electric vehicles in the next decade is a perfect example of that. Do we have the charging infrastructure to meet the demand? I do not think we have, and I know from the answers I have received to written questions that a huge number of properties will never have access to a charge point. Why do we not have somewhere in town centres where people can access charge points? People would have another reason to come into their town centre, and they could very well spend some time and money while they wait for their vehicle to charge. I think that is a great idea, but in order to achieve it, local authorities need the capacity, the resources and, indeed, the authority to plan and deliver what is needed. They need the necessary powers and the proper funding.

Civic pride, community, identity, jobs and opportunities all suffer when town centres are in decline. We owe it to the people in our communities to think big and have the ambition to deliver town centres that are equipped for tomorrow’s world—ones that will not only survive, but thrive in future generations. When we see the appetite for new things in our world, we know that people are willing to seize the change and try to make the world work in a different way. The sight of empty shop units in a town centre tells them that, for too long, their concerns have not been addressed. It is time that was changed.

I absolutely want levelling up to work, but I also want it to mean something. Tackling some of the deeply engrained issues that I have referred to today is central to that process, not just having a quick headline before the Government move on, because when the spotlight fades, my community will still face those challenges. However, it now expects the Government to deliver on the promises they made and I hope that we see that happen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time today, Mr Robertson, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate. I will read out some statistics, because for too long, sadly, Stoke-on-Trent was talked about in a negative light by my predecessors, so I will talk about how great Stoke-on-Trent actually is and what it has been doing under not only a Conservative Government but a Conservative-led city council, led by the fantastic Councillor Abi Brown.

Stoke-on-Trent was ranked first for jobs growth in 2020. Between 2015 and 2018 it saw wages increase by 11.7%, with a 3.9% annual increase. In 2019-20 we built over 1,000 new homes, of which 97% were built on brownfield land. We are the eighth fastest growing economy in England, which includes London. We have created over 8,000 jobs in the last five years. We have the Ceramic Valley enterprise zone, which is one of the most successful enterprise zones in the UK. I am delighted that Tunstall Arrow phase 2 is effectively already under way and bookings are being made. The city council has done a fantastic thing by carrying on the business rates relief, using its own finances to encourage more businesses to come to the area. There is a fantastic story here for Stoke-on-Trent.

I am very sorry to get into the petty party politics, as some people might accuse us of, but I do so because when the Labour party lost Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, it was because it spent too long talking the area down and never talked it up. It spent too long telling people how poor they were and how deprived they were, but never offering a solution to the problem. In fact, Labour’s legacy in Stoke-on-Trent was to build a hospital—the Royal Stoke University Hospital—with a disastrous private finance initiative debt, which means £20 million a year is being stolen from the frontline to pay that debt. Labour built a hospital with 200 fewer beds than the old hospital, which is even more insane.

We saw jobs and ceramics enterprises being shipped off to China, which means I am very grateful still to have Churchill China, Steelite International and Burleigh Pottery in my constituency. They are still doing well, but sadly that industry dying meant that towns such as Burslem and Tunstall, two of the five original towns of Stoke-on-Trent, are now in a much worse state. Those places were forgotten, because for 70 years they had Labour Members of Parliament.

I am the first ever Conservative Member of Parliament for my constituency. What has happened over time, as we have seen that transition from Labour to the Conservatives, is that things are now happening. By the way, that does not mean that I do not acknowledge that there are challenges in Stoke-on-Trent. As I say, the mother town of Burslem has one of the highest number of closed shops anywhere in the United Kingdom. The town used to thrive off Royal Doulton and many other Pot Bank factories, but now that is simply not the case. I am trying to find a future for that town. I was delighted to have spent my summer handing out a survey asking residents for their views—over 300 responses have come in—and I am working with the city council to create a vision, perhaps for an arts and creative culture that will link in with Middleport Pottery.

In Tunstall, the high street is predominantly privately owned. I know that because I rent my constituency office on that high street—it is in an old shop. The top end of the high street is falling into disrepair, but I am delighted that the city council is working with me to hold private landlords to account for allowing their shops to fall into disrepair.

However, to offer the Minister more evidence of levelling up, it is the Conservative-led Stoke-on-Trent City Council that has invested £4 million into Longton town hall, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), and it is spending over £4 million on Tunstall town hall in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. That will see council offices, a police post, a children’s centre and much more bringing this heritage building back to life, which will bring more footfall to the town centre and hopefully see it rejuvenate.

There is so much more opportunity. I fell in love with the city back in 2018, when I first started campaigning there, because I saw what others did not, which is a people who were desperate for change but just needed someone to go and fight for them. I am absolutely delighted to be their champion, as I have said many times.

I know that we have just heard some hon. Members talk about the town deal fund. I am a member of Kidsgrove’s town deal board. It is important to remember that these towns got this money before I was even elected as a Member of Parliament, but it was a Conservative Government who decided that the town of Kidsgrove, which is linked with Talke and Newchapel, would benefit from a town deal fund that, in total and including the advance town deal payment, came to £17.6 million. I can tell Members that when I go out door-knocking in Kidsgrove, the people there cannot believe what that money has done.

We have invested £2.75 million in Kidsgrove sports centre, which means that this facility will reopen in spring 2022. Rather than building a new one at higher expense to the taxpayer, the existing one will be refurbished and reopened. Why is that so important, Mr Robertson? In 2017, the then Labour-run Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council was offered the sports centre for £1, and it said no. There was a fantastic, community-run campaign led by Mark Clews, Dave Rigby, Ray Williams and Councillor Gill Burnett, who was a Labour councillor but has since become a Conservative over the decision on the sports centre. They got the borough council behind it, and they certainly got me behind it. Ultimately, we will see that facility reopened, which means swimming and a gym will return to Kidsgrove, which has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country.

We are also seeing the upgrading of the town centre with the new indoor town centre hub, which will hopefully have a new GP surgery in the middle, as well as a post office, and will link in with the job centre based in Kidsgrove. This will hopefully bring a bit of a coffee culture to the town centre. That will also be linked with Kidsgrove railway station. I give credit here to my predecessor’s predecessor, Joan Walley, who secured £5.5 million from the Access for All fund for the station, which now has a new footbridge. I decided that we should use the town deal board money to upgrade the ticket office, which will have a community café and more space for the volunteers, who do a fantastic job of looking after the station. There will also be 200 car parking spaces and a bus terminal, after the bridge was strengthened, meaning we will have a better integrated transport system. There will also be one hour’s free parking for people to do the three-minute walk to the town centre.

We are going to unlock the Chatterley Valley West employment site with over £2 million of investment, which could bring up to 2,000 jobs to the local area. It baffles me that the Labour councillors in Talke & Butt Lane—the ward where I live—moan that this money has been spent about 200 feet outside the Kidsgrove parish area. They are moaning that we have invested more than £2 million in a strategic employment site that will bring 2,000 jobs to the area. Again, in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, Labour is showing that it is far more interested in seeing money not spent in our local area, and not championing the local cause.

We have built one of the UK’s leading pump tracks at Newchapel recreation ground, which has had visitors from Worcester and Scotland, while BMX riders such as Kyle Evans, a former Team GB European champion, have used the facility. For £100,000, it has created a buzz in Kidsgrove, giving young people access to more facilities. When I was elected, I was told that there was nothing for young people to do. Now the sports centre is coming back and there is a new pump track.

Finally, we have worked with the King’s Church of England Academy, which now has FIFA-standard 3G AstroTurf pitches. The schoolchildren can use that facility during the day and the school can open it up to the community during the evenings and weekends, bringing revenue to the school to invest in the community.

This is what a town deal has done for my area, and I am proud to be part of it. I will benefit from the fact that the swimming pool exists—as a Kidsgrove parish resident, my daughter, who is just over a year old, will be able to learn to swim in her local swimming facility. Every pound invested by the community into that sports centre is going straight back into it, because the community group that ran the campaign are taking over the day-to-day running of that fabulous facility.

Not only have the Government done all of that, but they have delivered on the second largest announcement of civil service job moves of any Department, after Darlington. I know that the Home Secretary looks forward to spending her time up there on occasion. However, she might not be aware that, under the Places for Growth programme, 550 jobs are coming to Stoke-on-Trent via the Home Office. A new innovation centre will provide jobs at all career stages, including apprenticeships to help Stokies get into great civil service careers. Initially, there will be 50 caseworker roles, with a further 200 jobs at an asylum co-ordination hub, and that will expand to about 560 jobs by 2025. In addition to the caseworker roles, the centre will include operational, IT, policy and corporate functions, and will offer exciting career paths to local people. There will also be a number of senior civil service roles in Stoke-on-Trent, meaning that the people there will have a voice in Government. If anyone wants to understand why the people of Stoke-on-Trent voted overwhelmingly to leave—by 73%, in my constituency—it is because they thought that if London did not care about them, then Brussels would not have a bloody clue about their local area. That is why we are finally seeing a big change there.

What can the Government continue to do? The shopping list has not ended unfortunately, Minister. Stoke has had an appetiser and a bit of a main course, but we are still hungry for more, and dessert will come in the form of the levelling-up fund bid that we have submitted. We are lucky to be rated as a grade 1 priority area. We thank the Government for listening to our calls and understanding the deprivation.

It is hard not to be enthused by the hon. Gentleman’s energy. I congratulate him and his colleague, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who is no longer present but was here for the previous debate. Does he agree that it is very important to have a partnership and relationship between the MP and the local council, and that it is part of the success story that he refers to?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who I love taking an intervention from—it is a parliamentary privilege. He is right: the relationship between the local council and the local MP is so important, because if we end up butting heads nothing will happen. That is not benefiting the people who have elected us to serve them.

I take the fact that those votes will end. I do not sit here arrogantly; they were lent votes, and if I do not deliver, I will be sacked. Every single one of my constituents is a Lord Sugar, so they will hire me or fire me. I take that responsibility absolutely seriously. I say on every doorstep that I do. That is why I do not stop banging on about my local area. That is why the Minister must be bored to death of hearing about Stoke-on-Trent from me and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent South—the Stoke mafia, as we have come to be known in the Tea Room. We will keep fighting for our local area. Councillor Abi Brown is a tour de force—a young, dynamic, forward-thinking council leader paving the way, and now having a major role in the Local Government Association as well.

Let us go over the levelling-up fund bid, which for me is a litmus test of the Government’s commitment. It is a £73.5 million bid. Some £3.5 million will go into Tunstall, which will turn an old library and swimming baths back into a mixed-use facility, including flats, a multi-purpose exhibition space and a café. It will turn one of the largest city centre regeneration areas in the west midlands into a thriving hotel, flat accommodation and hopefully indoor arena that will specialise in e-sports. There is so much potential in those fantastic bids, which are in with the Treasury. I know that the Minister wants to make my Christmas. One way that she can achieve that is by ensuring that we deliver on those bids. We have bid for the transport elements as well.

We have also bid on the Stoke-to-Leek line through the Restoring your Railway fund. It is a fantastic bid, with four constituency MPs bidding for it jointly. It will unlock people being able to commute around north Staffordshire, meaning that we finally have better transport. I hope that, alongside rail, we will get some Bus Back Better opportunities, because 30% of the people of Stoke-on-Trent do not have access to a car, and the current bus service is not good enough.

Thank you, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this important and timely debate. He set out very comprehensively why levelling up matters so much and cannot be left as a slogan. It must become a reality, because the communities that we represent all rely on it.

The Government tell us that one of their key priorities as we emerge, hopefully, from the pandemic, is that we do so as a healthier country. For the levelling-up agenda—the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) touched on this—that must mean tackling health inequalities. It is one of the glaring indicators of inequality between cities and regions, but I worry that over the last 18 months we have seen a pattern where health and leisure facilities in areas with the biggest pre-existing health inequalities have been the ones at greatest risk of closure.

According to ukactive, more than 400 sports and leisure facilities have closed permanently since March 2020, including the much valued and loved West Denton pool in Newcastle North, which has sadly not reopened due to the devastating financial impact of the pandemic. According to the 2019 indices of deprivation, the neighbourhood where that pool is located is already in the top 10% in the country for health deprivation challenges. Much of the surrounding area has similar issues. Combined with the overall decline in physical activity during lockdowns over the last 15 months, I am really concerned that its closure will lead only to the worsening of long-term health outcomes for the communities that I represent.

When I met with the Minister for School Standards yesterday alongside water safety and swimming campaigners, they emphasised to him that children’s swimming ability varies hugely by socioeconomic status. According to Sport England, 84% of children and young people from the most affluent areas can swim the statutory 25 metres required by the national curriculum when they leave primary school, whereas only 41% from the least affluent families do the same. Water safety is about a lot more than just being able to swim, but I worry that the pool closures in disadvantaged areas—not just Newcastle—will create a problem of children from less affluent backgrounds disproportionately failing to meet those minimum standards. Therefore, potentially they will find themselves in much greater danger when near the water. Access to affordable local swimming pools is central to helping children in less affluent areas not only keep fit but be safe.

We need to level up health inequalities. The Minister could make a great start by backing Newcastle City Council’s bid to the fund to develop a new state-of-the-art net-zero-carbon swimming pool and leisure development in outer west Newcastle. The Chancellor is a keen swimmer, having recently decided to add a 12-metre pool to his own grade II listed north Yorkshire manor. I hope that when the Government come to consider bids to the levelling-up fund, the Minister will agree that Newcastle North’s constituents in the outer west of Newcastle should have access to a pool, too.

I will speak briefly about High Speed 2. Like many colleagues in the north of England, I have been concerned by reports that Ministers are again considering the cancellation of phase 2b, which runs from Leeds and connects to other major cities via the east coast main line. Committing to the eastern leg of HS2, alongside Northern Powerhouse Rail and east coast main line upgrades, are all essential to make HS2 work for the north. It is not just about speed; it is about providing that connectivity and capacity that we so badly need. The Government have created a lot of uncertainty over its future, seemingly reopening the question of phase 2b time and again, even though the Oakervee review concluded that it should go ahead. If the Government are serious about HS2 being a project for the north, which is how it has been sold, it cannot be just for London and Birmingham. In the upcoming integrated rail plan, they must commit to integrate and build all phases of HS2, along with Northern Powerhouse Rail and badly needed upgrades to the east coast main line.

Enough talk about levelling up—the Government need to walk the walk on this issue. That means investing in our communities, our health inequalities and our transport infrastructure, so that we can genuinely level out not just between north and south but between and within our northern communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I too congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important and timely debate.

The last time I spoke in Westminster Hall was on the similar topic of transport funding in the north of England. I thought, “I can’t resist getting involved in this and sticking my oar in.” I made a couple of points that I hoped were helpful to Members, based on our experience in Scotland over many decades when it comes to getting money out of the UK Government. I said that they could play with the formulas in the Treasury Green Book all they liked but if the Prime Minister, when he was Mayor of London, claimed that £1 spent in Croydon was worth more than £1 spent in Strathclyde, it could be taken that he also meant that £1 spent in Croydon was worth more than one spent in Merseyside, Teesside, Tyneside or Humberside. Clearly, levelling up is not in this Prime Minister’s DNA.

We should scrutinise closely how his Administration carry that agenda forward. We should not be the least bit surprised that when we looked specifically at the £1 billion allocated from the towns deal, we saw that 39 of 45 places that benefit happened to be represented by Conservative MPs. Imagine that.

In Scotland, we do not have metro Mayors, but for a time I was co-leader of Aberdeenshire council, and on behalf of that local authority, I put pen to paper on what amounted to, in total, a £750 million city region deal between Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen city. That brought the Scottish Government and the UK Government together; it brought the public and private sectors together, and it got local government involved. It treated everyone fairly, as equals, and it is bringing significant benefits. We got that to diversify the economy and to bring prosperity to some parts of the north-east of Scotland that needed it, as well as to home in on some of the areas where we felt we had a comparative advantage, but we did it, in stark contrast to the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda, by respecting the spheres and the tiers of Governments at all levels.

Since then, we have seen the power grab of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the way that the UK Government have tried to bypass devolved Government. It is a disgrace, but it is very clear to see why that happened. The UK Government want to direct money not where it will do the most levelling up in a lot of cases, but where they think it can do the most political good for the Conservative party.

We can see exactly why that is in Scotland. The Conservatives know that they cannot win an election. In fact, they came within about 0.2% of seeing the Scottish National party being re-elected as a Government and being sacked as the official Opposition. Knowing that they cannot win an election in Scotland, they instead seek to bypass the established spheres and tiers of Government, undermining the only national Government that is directly elected and accountable to voters in Scotland. I think that is a terrible shame because there was an opportunity to work together, to respect the spheres and tiers of Government, to look in the round at the powers that the Scottish Government have and to give them the borrowing powers they need to invest in the long-term infrastructure and societal change that we need to level up.

In north-east Scotland, the Conservatives have complained long and loud about local funding. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). He lives in a tier 1 area. Aberdeen city has been put in tier 2 and Aberdeenshire has been put into the lowest tier possible. These are the areas that have been punished and penalised most through Brexit and have received the very least through the levelling-up agenda so far. Added to the loss of the EU funding that they could have expected, this simply rubs salt in the wound.

It is now clear beyond doubt, viewed from where I represent, that this Government have absolutely no intention of building a fair recovery. Giving the Scottish Government the powers they need to build back better and to build back recovery through an independence referendum is clearly the only way to enable us to build back better and build back fairer.

Thank you for your chairmanship today, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for tabling this debate. As he said, he comes to this issue not just from the perspective of a local MP but also as the Mayor of South Yorkshire. He spoke eloquently about the challenges facing his area, which are shared by many areas across the country.

I do not propose to use the time available to go over the familiar ground of what area has been allocated what fund. Those issues have been well aired and the disparities are there for everyone to see. Instead, I want to look at the wider picture and to begin by asking the Minister to define levelling up. What do the Government mean by it? Can she define it in clear and simple terms?

There is a long history to efforts and attempts to tackle regional inequality. In the Government that I served, we launched the new deal for communities. My own constituency received £53 million from this for the All Saints and Blakenhall area, more than twice what the whole city has received under its recent towns fund bid, more than a decade on. We had Sure Start, the Building Schools for the Future programme, rising investment in the NHS, falling waiting times and major cuts in child poverty.

We introduced tax credits to help lower paid working people. We did not cut their incomes by £20 a week, as the Government will do next month, a cut that will affect 12,000 families in my constituency and millions of families across the country. We had regional development agencies covering the whole of England. These were abolished by the coalition Government and replaced by local enterprise partnerships, which we were told would lead to regeneration through private sector-led boards. Who ever hears about LEPs now? How did they become the poor, unloved children of the Conservative Government, created and then ignored by Ministers? What is the Government’s problem with the LEPs they created? Is their crime being too local?

Levelling up has to be considered alongside what local areas have lost over the past decade: billions of pounds cut from local authority budgets; 773 libraries closed in England; 750 youth centres closed; 1,300 children’s centres closed; and school funding per pupil cut by 9% over the past decade, the biggest fall in 40 years, a direct attack on the opportunities and life chances of the very young people who need education the most. There is no greater leveller up than education. It is more powerful than any new road, building or bus lane. It is the platform upon which barriers are torn away. It is the weapon through which glass ceilings are broken. And on this most fundamental of issues, opportunity has been taken away and not enhanced, so before we talk about levelling up, we need to ask: who did the levelling down? The Government would like the public to believe that they have been in power for only two years, but that is not the case; they have been in power for 11 years.

What of levelling up itself? We welcome every new pound of investment and every new job created. We want every part of the country to succeed. We want the best possible opportunities for people, no matter where they live or the circumstances into which they were born. But that will not be achieved by pots of capital expenditure alone. Even when it comes to the money, the new levelling-up fund replaces a local growth fund that was actually worth more, and half of its budget this year is taken from the towns fund. It is the reannouncement of the same money over and over again.

Then there is the basic concept itself, and this is the heart of it. A true levelling-up agenda would focus on people, not just capital expenditure. Unless we help people to succeed—help them to deal with the costs that they face, for example in relation to childcare and the early years, and enable them to make the most of their talent through properly funded, excellent schools and great second-chance education later in life—true levelling up will not happen. We will have some extra infrastructure spending, but that is what it will be.

Let us take the verdict of the Government’s own Industrial Strategy Council, issued shortly before it was abolished by Ministers. It said that

“the proposed approach appears over-reliant on infrastructure spending and the continued use of centrally controlled funding pots thinly spread across a range of initiatives. Evidence, historical and international, suggests this is unlikely to be a recipe for success. Sustained local growth needs to be rooted in local strategies, covering not only infrastructure but skills, sectors, education and culture. These strategies need to be locally designed and focussed”.

The truth is that the Government do not want this to be locally led. They want it to be centralised, controlled by Ministers and given out solely at their discretion—the subject of Friday visits in high-vis jackets. They are not talking about skills and education, because those things are not tangible enough for press releases and election leaflets. They want physical projects that they can point to.

We read today that the agenda may even be used as an instrument of political control inside the Conservative party. Reports suggest that the Government Whips have threatened to withhold funding from Conservative MPs’ constituencies as a mechanism for stamping out potential dissent on the Government Back Benches. The Chief Whip is alleged to have said, “My pen hovered over your name,” to one potential rebel. Why should MPs’ constituents lose out because their MPs had the temerity to exercise their own judgment or the gall to stand up for what they believed in? Public money should not be used in that way. Whips have always tried to get MPs to vote the party line. That is their job. But the allocation of public funds should not come into it. That shows the inherent flaws in trying to do this in such a centralised way.

The challenge for the Government is clear: define what levelling up is; ensure that the definition includes people as well as bricks and mortar; and have a genuine local voice in how this is done, rather than the centralised approach that has been adopted so far. If Ministers do that, we might make some progress, but if they continue on the current path, the danger is that the verdict of their Industrial Strategy Council is what comes to pass.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate on a topic about which he has been very vocal. We both care very deeply about it, and I hope he understands that the Government feel the same way.

In a speech on this issue delivered exactly two months ago today, the Prime Minister said:

“it is the mission of this government to unite and level up across the whole of the UK, not just because that is morally right, but because if we fail we are simply squandering vast reserves of human capital and we are failing to allow people to fulfil their potential and we are holding our country back.”

Changing a situation in which for too many people geography turns out to be destiny is this Government’s defining goal. That is what levelling up means: opportunity for all, wherever and whoever.

Hon. Members raised a number of important points, and I will try to address as many of them as I can in the time allowed. Bids are being assessed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Transport and other relevant Departments. I cannot discuss them here, but successful bids will be announced this autumn. I wish all constituencies and local authorities that have put forward bids to the Government the very best of luck. We want to do as much as we can for everybody. Resources are not infinite, but we will do the very best we can.

The hon. Member for Barnsley Central said that it is about not words, but action, so I hope he will be happy for me to summarise briefly what the Government have done and what we intend to do. Opposition Members complain that we are not investing enough, but the fact is that last year’s spending review announced record investment in infrastructure with all the benefits that will bring. This year’s review, which will conclude on 27 October, will build on that progress. It will focus on strong, innovative public services, a transition to net zero and delivering our plan for growth. To emphasise the quantum of money, core departmental spending is set to grow in real terms at nearly 4% per year on average over this Parliament. That means, in 2024-25, £140 billion more per year in cash terms than at the start of the Parliament, so it simply is not true that we are not investing.

One of our more exciting policies that the Treasury has really been promoting is freeports, which create good-quality jobs. We think they will do so much. They will become magnets for dynamic, fast-growing businesses, generating prosperity in areas where people may sometimes feel that they have been forgotten. At the Budget, we announced eight new freeports, one of which is in Felixstowe. I know it is not Lowestoft, but it will have positive benefits for Norfolk and Suffolk, and will benefit areas such as Lowestoft.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) asked about coastal communities. He said a lot that I will address further in my remarks, but at Budget the Government invested quite a lot in policies that will benefit coastal communities—not just the levelling-up fund but the £5.2 billion flood and coastal defence programme, which starts this month. We are also allocating £1.2 billion over the years to support the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband in hard-to-reach areas. I know he will appreciate that.

I want to quickly mention the fact that in Stoke-on-Trent, we have £9.2 million to install gigabit broadband, making us the first gigabit city in the country. That has been done with Government funding and VX Fiber. We brought that project in under budget and saved the Treasury £600,000. I thought this was a great opportunity for the Minister to congratulate the city of Stoke-on-Trent on delivering once again.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I have been really bowled over by how the Stoke mafia have been such champions for their area, never talking it down. I thank him for reminding me about the amount we have given to Stoke. I believe we have also given Lowestoft about £24.9 million within the towns fund, so money is going to all the right places—the places that need this cash.

Building infrastructure is also essential, and we have launched a number of schemes, such as the towns fund. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned the UK Infrastructure Bank and said that it is all very well that we have it, but it is a critical thing. It is up and running and planning its first investment. Crucially, it will partner with the private sector and local government to kick-start major infrastructure projects, contributing not just to levelling up but to achieving net zero. A third of its initial £12 billion in funding is specifically earmarked for local and mayoral authorities, just like his. The expectation is that these investments will also spark a crowd-in effect, with private backers keen, themselves, to invest in the kind of infrastructure we need. The Government cannot do everything. We need the private sector to take part in this. I did not hear the hon. Member for Barnsley Central mention the private sector in his speech, and I hope that he might do so in his closing remarks. The private sector is crucial in delivering levelling up, and I am very happy to meet him and speak to him about what it can do. It cannot be just Government.

Hon. Members also talked about skills and education. Absolutely—I completely agree with them. Skills and education will be the cornerstone of our future economic success. Here, too, we are working hard to change lives, whether through the £95 million lifetime skills guarantee, the £43 million we have provided to expand employer-led skills retraining boot camps across England this year, or the £3,000 we have been giving employers for every apprentice they take on before the end of this month.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) talked about health inequalities and her bid, which I wish her every success with. We very much recognise this; I am also the Minister for Equalities, and the Government have been doing quite a lot within this space. However, I remind all Members that funding is very tight. Last week, when we did vote for additional health funding, Opposition Members did not walk through the Lobby with us to vote for extra money for the NHS.

Returning to the point about what the Government are doing, local authorities have a part to play, as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and others said. We are not into top-down politics, or Government imposing solutions by decree, whatever it is they say. We think national, but we do act local. That is why we have given local authorities the power to drive forward funding applications. We have given lots of powers to local authorities, and I would be very keen to hear what our mayors and local authorities are doing with those powers.

We are also trying to avoid what has historically been a siloed approach. The levelling-up fund, which is run by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport, was designed together with the Treasury. That is an example of how we are doing better working together, and it is why I am very happy to respond in this debate, even though many of the issues that hon. Members have raised are managed and administered by other Departments.

We have also talked about taking a more flexible approach to devolution in England. I know that the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) is requesting far, far more, but I am afraid that is not something we will grant at this time. We do want to do devolution better, rewriting the rulebook and giving new deals for counties, so that the people who know their communities best can do the best for them. Through the devolution deals, we have already committed £7.5 billion of unringfenced gainshare investment for nine mayoral combined authorities over 30 years, to be spent on local priorities.

I will also mention, specifically for the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, that through the city region sustainable transport settlements, eight MCAs are set to receive £4.2 billion over the next five years. Through the transforming cities fund, Sheffield city region—soon to be the South Yorkshire mayoral combined authority—has itself received a total of £171 million to fund local transport projects, including a new bus rapid transit link in Barnsley. That is just part of the investment that the Government are making across the country.

The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) asked what exactly it means to level up. I hear that again and again. I feel that we repeat ourselves, but people still do not take it in. Levelling up is the chance for the Government to improve life chances and everyday life for people in underperforming places. Those places have not been underperforming since 2010—they have been underperforming for decades, under successive Governments.

We acknowledge the gains we have made and that there is still work to do, but structural issues are geographic for some places, and we believe that we have the right policies to tackle those. Many of the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) gave show how we can deliver that.

There were lots of accusations about the levelling-up fund being pork barrel politics for Conservative constituencies. I utterly reject that. It is absolutely untrue. It is also untrue nonsense that the Chief Whip is deciding which MPs will get funding. Those are just nonsensical media speculations. We, on this side of the House, know that we are doing right for the people of this country. That is why we have more Conservative seats than ever, and many, like Stoke, used to be Labour.

For those who are unsure, the levelling-up fund is intended to invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life across the UK. We recognise that it does not always go to the most deprived places. It is a formula that takes many things into account, and it will prioritise those bids, as has been said, from places in highest need.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).