The levelling up agenda remains conveniently vague but admittedly the '12 missions' outlined seem attractive. But objectively and realistically - will they work for our region?
With little-to-no targets to decrease unemployment and child poverty, two very problematic issues for which the North East is worst in the UK, it begs the question of whether the true fundamental issues which continue to spiral within our communities are actually being addressed.
Part of the Levelling Up plan included handing power and resources to local leaders. As it stands now do all of our local leaders have the capability to identify issues, create solutions and apply the desperately required changes we need to address the economic issues we are facing. Are they equipped to handle an unprecedented amount of responsibility and accountability?
On the face of it, it certainly seems as though the North is being left out in the cold yet again. ‘Levelling up’ our communities, or more accurately evenly ‘levelling them out’ and sharing the prosperity doesn’t look like it’s a priority. It’s hard to trust a government which has continued to betray us so much over the past few years especially. The fact that the vast majority of areas which were awarded a share of the first £1bn of funding, 39 out of 45, went to conservative constituencies – including Rishi Sunak’s affluent constituency of Richmond and Yorkshire – gives us just a hint of nepotism. As a mainly labour-led region I fear that if this continues our issues with worsen.
To be fair, the lack of funding for the region doesn’t seem for a lack of trying. Bid writing projects are costing our local authorities a huge amount to submit, with many being unsuccessful. The Northern Echo revealed that Durham County Council spent the most out of any North East local authorities, totalling an eyewatering £163,575 – which actually proved to be money well spent as they were awarded £20m to go towards over £30m of works. In total, over £300,000 was spent by councils in outsourcing bid-writing.
Based on a single person, taking into account rising living costs, and based on average rents of £578 in the region, plus average bills including council tax, gas and electric bills, TV licence, water, an average food spend of £175 per month, the average finance cost of a car and filling the tank totals £1,281. The average ‘take-home’ monthly wage for a North East production worker is £1,458.02, leaving approximately £177 disposable income per month – £2,124 per year.
A key part of the solution could be more skilled and well-paid jobs which will come from more investment in innovation and education. One of the factors which have been attributed to the productivity gap is huge difference between what local governments and universities spend on research and development across regions. London spends more than twice as much as the North East, with Scotland, East and the South East not far behind. The worrying part is that the latest plan announced in February 2022 promises to have only 200,000 more people a year completing high-quality skills training in England by 2030.
So, the question is – are we levelling up or just painting over the cracks? The tough reality of the above is that systemic challenges and issues have built up over generations, many of which will take decades to unravel and won’t be resolved by creating low-paid job opportunities.