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Levelling Up: North-east England

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what are their levelling-up priorities for the North East of England.

My Lords, we are giving people in the north-east the tools needed to shape a better future. Next year the north-east will become the first region fully covered by mayoral combined authorities. These mayors will have direct control over long-term investment funds totalling £1.85 billion. Other regeneration priorities are also being delivered by locally led town boards, with £765 million of funding allocated to projects across the north-east.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and I welcome the creation of an elected mayor to represent most of the area of the north-east, which is a big step forward for devolution. But the Government’s levelling-up policies have been rightly criticised by the Commons Select Committee and others for simply giving out bits and pieces of money, often as a result of competitive bids, and sometimes seemingly favouring areas where the Government have political friends, rather than addressing the areas of real need. Why can there not be—and why has there not been—an overall programme for the north-east, involving all relevant government departments, to deal with the transport needs, business and investment needs, health inequalities, the woeful shortfall in local government funding, and many other areas? An overall approach is what has been needed.

My Lords, I believe that the north-east devolution deal will help deliver that overall approach but put its delivery in the hands of local leaders and an elected mayor. When it comes to competitive bids, we have heard feedback from many local areas and that is why the third round of the levelling up fund was not allocated using competitive bids. We have also set out principles, going forward, in our local government funding simplification plan. Finally, on which areas have benefited from funding from this Government, under the levelling up funds the north-east has received the highest allocation per capita—quite rightly, as it reflects the need in the north-east.

Is the Minister aware that, in spite of all the Government’s levelling-up efforts, over Christmas there will be 140,000 children and 300,000 people in temporary accommodation? This has gone up by 14% in the last year, according to Shelter and the Big Issue. What can the Minister say about that?

I am aware of the figures that the noble Lord cites, and I think it is a tragedy. The Government are committed to doing all we can to address it. We have seen a real increase in pressure on the private rented sector over the past year, which leads to increases in people in temporary accommodation. At the Autumn Statement, we announced further funding towards tackling homelessness to help address this. We also announced that the local housing allowance will be increased to the 30th percentile, which will help address those cost pressures in the private rented sector, so we are doing a lot to try to address this issue.

When the Prime Minister announced the cancellation of HS2, he made promises that there would be transport improvements for the north-east, affecting both rail capacity on the east coast main line and the dualling of the A1 north of Newcastle. Given the number of broken promises we have had over the last 50 years on these subjects, will they happen?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that the decision not to press ahead with the final leg of HS2 has released a huge amount of money for people’s priorities across the north of England when it comes to investing in transport. Where that investment will be made will be influenced and led by local leaders and their priorities, working closely with government. It is in their hands as to where we should best allocate this funding.

My Lords, a recent report by the Centre for Ageing Better said that the north-east has the largest proportion of older people in poor health, with three in 10 people aged 50 to 64 in poor health, compared with one in five in the south-east. Since 2010 the Government have cut £15 billion from local authority budgets. What is the progress in levelling up regional equalities to ensure that the quality of someone’s later life will not remain a postcode lottery? Is it not the case that the Government embarked on creating a northern powerhouse but instead have delivered a northern poorhouse?

My Lords, the levelling-up missions encompass a wide range of outcomes that we are seeking to address, including reducing health inequalities. That is why we are investing further money both in our health service and in social care, including additional grant money made available to local councils this year and next. It is a long-term transformation fund but we will be held accountable, reporting against those missions annually until 2030.

My Lords, the Government have been extremely generous to Tees Valley with the infrastructure and other funding. Will my noble friend look equally generously on North Yorkshire, 75% of whose budget is going towards the elderly, and even more towards childcare? We need to restore the balance between Tees Valley and other rural areas, such as North Yorkshire, in the available funding.

My Lords, I was pleased to be able to take forward yesterday the statutory instrument that will create the combined authority and mayoral authority for York and North Yorkshire. It represents a huge opportunity for the area in terms of investment and local leaders taking forward their priorities. My noble friend is absolutely right that it is a different area with a more rural constituency, and I think it has the opportunity to show how devolution and levelling up can work across the country, whether you are in a rural or an urban area.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, both made a point about the centrality of regenerating transport links in the north of England in order to help the growth of the economy and therefore levelling up. Is the Minister aware that it can take up to four and a half hours to travel by train from Newcastle to Liverpool? Is she aware that over the summer the Transport Minister, Huw Merriman, kindly came on a site visit to look at the so-called Hellifield link, which would create a new cross-Pennine east-west link—a track that is already there but needs to be revitalised? Given what the Prime Minister said in Manchester about the importance of regenerating the economy in the north based on its transport links, can the Minister find out from Mr Merriman what progress has been made on that?

I am very happy to undertake to write to my honourable friend and find out about progress on that. It brings us back to the broader point from the difficult decision not to proceed with the last leg of HS2. That has freed up billions of pounds for investment that will make a difference to more people’s lives, and faster, across the whole north of England.

I refer the Minister to the recently published report by PwC, its Green Jobs Barometer, which says that the number of green jobs advertised has fallen sharply in the last year in the north-east, and that London and the south-east continue to dominate the total number of green jobs advertised. If the Government are to narrow the gap through levelling up, what action will they take to promote green jobs in parts of the country outside London and the south-east?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that the north-east has huge potential when it comes to green jobs and industries, and that has been a real focus of government investment in the north-east, along with leaders there. We announced the investment zone for the north-east last month. That is all focused on advanced manufacturing, green industries and the creation of jobs there. It is backed by a huge amount of government funding, and we have already seen great results from it. I think we will see an increase in green jobs in the north-east, as well as across the rest of the country.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the best things about the north-east of England is that you are almost in Scotland? However, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, when you get to the A1 in the north-east of England, it narrows down almost to a country lane—to a single-file road. Will the Minister answer the noble Lord’s question? When is it going to be dualled? That will be a symbol of Scotland and England remaining part of the United Kingdom.

I am going to have to disappoint the noble Lord. I do not have a date for him on when that project will be completed. Essential for improvements to transport across the north of England and in the north-east is the extra funding that will be made available for it through the cancellation of the final leg of HS2.

My Lords, I say to my noble friend the Minister not to lose sight of the importance of culture in levelling up. The north has been extraordinarily successful. I declare an interest as a trustee of Tate; Tate Liverpool is undergoing a huge regeneration. There is also the refurbishment of Manchester Museum and the transformation of Newcastle and Gateshead through culture. Will the Minister assure me that in her new brief she puts culture at the centre when she is thinking about levelling up?

My noble friend is absolutely right. When we talk about levelling up, we talk about pride of place, for example. Culture can be an incredibly important part of that. In recent levelling-up funding, we have taken steps to ensure that culture specifically is considered in the allocation of those funds.