Boris Johnson is pursuing an Oliver Twist-style strategy that makes regions beg for more in order to level up, peers have heard.
Speaking during a Lords debate on the need to produce a coherent and cost-effective regional strategy, Labour’s Lord Liddle said a green new deal prioritising the transformation of the country’s old industrial towns into “exemplars of zero-carbon living” should be at the heart of the approach.
He said the Government’s current plan involved the creation of “lots of funds” for which local authorities had to make bids to Whitehall departments.
Lord Liddle explained: “It’s London-based civil servants who are recommending what should happen, ministers consult their MPs – especially red wall Conservative MPs – about which splashes of new paint are likely to buy them the most votes.
“Well, I think this is putting the regions in the position of Oliver Twist standing in the workhouse queue begging for whatever doles our London masters are prepared to spare us.”
He added: “We now have a unique opportunity to build a national consensus on levelling up, Boris Johnson has given us that. But high aspiration and lofty rhetoric aren’t good enough. We need a plan and we need it now.”
Conservative former minister Lord Young of Cookham also stressed the need for powers to be devolved to regions, arguing that a lack of clarity existed over the phrase “levelling up”.
He told the Lords: “I have spent many hours on the doorstep listening to voters’ priorities – safer streets, better schools, more houses, shorter waiting lists.
“Nobody has ever said: ‘George, please level me up’.
“This is not to discount it as an objective but just to say that it means different things to different people.”
Outlining the need to boost funding for local government, he said: “When we move from taxing fuel and we move to road pricing, the revenue from road pricing – a buoyant source of revenue – should go to local government and not central government, and that will give them the autonomy, the independence, the financial help they need to deliver the autonomy we all want to see.”
During the debate, peers also heard about the importance of delivering the HS2 high-speed rail line, with Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Adonis saying there was nothing more important to levelling up the country than transforming its infrastructure.
The peer, who served as transport secretary under the last Labour government, said: “The single biggest infrastructure project in the country at the moment directly geared to levelling up is HS2, which will transform the communications in this country between Greater London and the South East, the Midlands and the North.”
Communities minister Lord Greenhalgh echoed Lord Adonis’ claims, insisting he was a “passionate proponent” of HS2, but said he was disappointed by the escalating cost of the project.
He said: “The project was a £30 billion project. It is now over £100 billion and I think we need to learn in this country how we can deliver big infrastructure at reasonable cost because it’s not sustainable to see these ballooning numbers around that sort of project.”
Outlining the Government’s levelling up agenda, the Conservative peer added: “I’d like to conclude by re-emphasising the importance that this Government places on reducing the regional inequalities and economic, social and environmental outcomes present across the United Kingdom – both within my department and across Government we are already delivering the range of initiatives to level up the country, and the upcoming levelling up White Paper will set out further detail on our plan to reduce regional inequalities across the UK and level up the country.”