The UK’s deep regional divides are widening despite the Government’s promises to level up the country, a think tank for the north of England has warned.
In a report published on Monday, IPPR North – a branch of the Institute for Public Policy Research – said that two years after Boris Johnson was elected Conservative leader on a pledge to close regional inequalities, a yawning gap remained between rhetoric and the policy reality.
Jonathan Webb, senior research fellow at IPPR North and one of the report’s authors, told the PA news agency: “What the Government needs to do to show that it’s serious about levelling up is actually come up with policies that match the scale of the ambition.”
Many of the Government’s promises relate to new pots of money, such as the Levelling Up Fund, but the think tank noted that the allocation represented an investment of just £32 per person in the North.
That compared to a £413 per-person drop in annual council service spending over the past 10 years.
The Shared Prosperity Fund, set to replace EU structural funding the UK no longer receives, would deliver a 40% shortfall over the next three years compared to the EU funds.
The report said that another example of the Government’s tendency to over-promise and under-deliver was the scrapping in November of the eastern leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Leeds and the downgrading of a proposed high-speed rail line between Leeds and Manchester.
The delay to a flagship white paper – which could reportedly be published at the end of January as part of the Prime Minister’s leadership fightback in the wake of so-called partygate – showed that the Government had yet to define what levelling up even meant, IPPR North said.
The North East is at the sharp end of the UK’s deep regional divides & the reason for this lies firmly at the door of Westminster. But change is possible.@Rosie_Lockwood writes for @NETimesMagazine ⤵️https://t.co/VHU5tfIuHQ
— IPPR North (@IPPRNorth) January 10, 2022
Mr Webb said: “What it means in very blunt terms is people in the north of England have less access to prosperity and the good life that people in other parts of the country might have access to.”
He said that for every job created in the north of England, just under three were created in London and the South East, because of “investment decisions being favoured towards those parts of the country”.
London and the South East remained the driving force of the UK economy. While home to one-third of England’s population, the area accounted for 45% of its economy and 42% of its wealth, the report stated.
Meanwhile, in the North, in-work poverty had accelerated, with the number of people living in households in relative poverty rising by 4% over the last decade to reach 3.5 million, according to the report.
IPPR North also found that power and resources were increasingly placed in the hands of central government, with the amount of tax revenue taken by Whitehall rising from 95p in every £1 to 96p over the last four years.
Mr Webb called for further devolution and the fostering of collaborative relationships between central and local governments.
“We need to see a real commitment to central government letting go of some of these powers and resources and giving them to regional and local leaders who ultimately know their areas far better,” he said.
IPPR North’s interim director Arianna Giovannini said: “Two years on from the promise to level up the country, Government’s rhetoric has reached fever pitch, but in reality they have once again over-promised and under-delivered on rebalancing our economy.
“To succeed in levelling up, enabling people everywhere to live a good life, it will be necessary to build an economy hardwired for widespread prosperity, that powers the net-zero transition, and provides everyone with access to high-quality lifelong education.
“Broadening and deepening devolution, and building collaborative relationships between and across all levels of government are essential components of the levelling up jigsaw.
“But reorganising local government by the back door, false dawns, and further centralising power and funding would be a huge mistake and level down the country.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “This analysis is misleading as it focuses on just one part of our investment to level up the North of England.
“In addition to the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund, we’re providing record investment in infrastructure worth over £96 billion, £12 billion in affordable housing and a £2.6 billion Shared Prosperity Fund to help rebalance opportunity across the UK.
“The government will publish a White Paper that will drive forward this central mission in due course.”