IF the Government wants to pull Britain out of its descent into economic decline and social division, then it must take urgent action to resolve the nation’s syndrome of regional inequalities.
“Go big or go home,” Lord Bob Kerslake, chair of the UK2070 Commission on regional inequality, warned the Government, as the commission’s third and final report – Make No Little Plans – was launched last week.
On the publication of the second report last year, Lord Kerslake invoked the situation and the experience of Germany in reunifying East and West after the fall of the Berlin War. It was a sobering comparison, laying bare the scale of the divide separating the regions from the capital and its hinterlands. ‘Tear down this wall’ was his message then.
“The Government’s desire to level up the UK economy is welcome. However, the scale of the challenge we face is such that we need a generational shift if we are to avoid serious decline and division,” the former head of the Civil Service said on this occasion.
“Many people in Britain feel left behind by growth elsewhere and that has contributed to an acrimonious debate about Europe. We now face a decade of potential disruption – leaving the European Union, confronting the impact of climate change and adjusting to the fourth industrial revolution.
“Our research shows clearly that these inequalities did not grow up overnight. They reflect an over-centralised system that fails to comprehend the reality of regional need and consistently comes up with policies that are either under-resourced, too fragmented, or too short-lived to make a difference. Some policy guidelines have actively stacked the odds against the regions. Time is not on our side and we cannot afford to keep on repeating those mistakes. Government must therefore think big, plan big and act at scale. Bluntly, if it can’t go big, it should go home.”
The UK2070 Commission is calling on the Government to make a public pledge to tackle inequality – standing alongside business and community organisations – to fulfil a 10-point programme set out in the final report. These include:
- Tripling the new Shared Prosperity Fund to £15 billion per year and continuing that commitment for 20 years – an extra expenditure of £200 billion over that already planned
- Investing in a new “connectivity revolution”, transforming the connections between cities, within cities and beyond cities to poorly connected towns. Infrastructure investment needs to increase to at least 3% of GDP per annum
- Creating new ‘Networks of Excellence” in regional Research & Development to match the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge
- Shifting power and funding away from Westminster and Whitehall through a radical programme of devolution
- Strengthening the local economies in disadvantaged towns
- Tackling the historic underperformance of the UK on skills
“This is not a debate about North vs South or towns vs cities,” Lord Kerslake added. “If we continue on our current trajectory then the threats to regional livelihoods and the pressures on London and the South East will become so severe that everybody will lose out. We also need to recognise that the price of failing to reverse this decline will far outweigh the cost of investing now in creating greater opportunities. Properly investing in levelling-up will come at a cost – but so will doing nothing about it.”
Greeting the report’s recommendations, Claire Ainsley, executive director of the anti-poverty thinktank, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “The scale of investment by Government to truly level up the country must match the scale of the challenge revealed in this report.
“Inequality between different regions is growing. For the 14 million people held back by poverty in the UK, this cannot be right. The Government has an unparalleled opportunity to be ambitious in the size and scope of its investment in regional and local growth – but no eye-catching scheme or quick fix is going to loosen the grip of poverty across the UK.
“Boosting the Shared Prosperity Fund will deliver opportunities in the areas that need them most. We also need to see ambitious and sustained investment in truly affordable housing, transport between different regions, and our social security system so that families can stay afloat when times get tough. These are the foundations for secure and prosperous communities cross the UK and they must be a priority for the government’s levelling up agenda.”
Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, and chair of the Local Government Association’s City Regions Board said: “This report sets out the case for urgently tackling rising inequality in our regions.
“Taking decisions over how to run local services closer to where people live is key to improving them. There is clear and significant evidence that outcomes for local communities improve and the country as a whole gets better value for money when democratically elected councils have the freedoms and funding to make local decisions.
“As the commission rightly shows, a centralised employment and skills system run from Whitehall is not the most effective way to support people find a job or progress to more rewarding work, something the LGA has long called to be devolved.
“With the promised White Paper due this year, councils want to work with the Government to reignite devolution in England. Any new approach needs to move beyond bespoke deals with individual areas to a ‘devolution baseline’ – a package of devolved powers that is available to all of English local government. These new powers need to be underpinned by statute so that they, along with those powers already devolved through existing deals, provide a sustainable long-term basis to drive inclusive growth across England.”
The UK2070 Commission’s findings are the culmination of 18 months of research and consultation carried out by six universities, with the support of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy. This a specialist research organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the USA.
In its final report, the commission offers “graphic insights” into the impact of lost productivity – and points to the need for “substantially increased” long-term investment in infrastructure, skills, research and development to revive local economies.
“Over the past 18 months, the commission has gathered disturbing evidence about the human impacts of inequality that no one should be comfortable with,” Lord Kerslake added. “Bluntly, it is also clear that trying to determine the future of regional Britain from Whitehall alone has not worked.
“It is therefore vital that the Government recognises the reality of the challenge they face to truly level up the UK. We start from having huge inequalities now that are only growing wider.
“Unless the Government’s levelling up programme is comprehensive, coordinated and long term it is destined to go the way of the failed initiatives of previous administrations. This will result in even greater disillusionment. We can create a fairer and stronger future, but only if we act at scale.”
Main Image: Lord Bob Kerslake speaks about the findings of the commission’s first two reports at the Homes for the North Conference in Leeds last year.