“This is a time for bold strokes & the fresh ideas that levelling up should be about. This is not the time for penny pinching, & to be taking away the extra £20 that families are relying on to put food on the table.”
On Monday I got the opportunity to hold an adjournment debate on the topic of levelling up. This comes off the back of a report I put together alongside a number of organisations in my constituency of Wansbeck highlighting the factors and effects behind the incredibly concerning rise in child poverty in our communities that was released last week.
These subjects are inherently intertwined. Taking aim at the disastrous plans to cut the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, Frances O’Grady, the president of the TUC, touched upon this point at their annual conference by pointing out that levelling up means nothing while children continue to go hungry.
Yet based on the plans outlined so far, it is difficult to see how the current levelling up project goes anywhere near far enough in terms of scope or ambition to really turn the tide of rising poverty levels that are wreaking havoc all across the country – hitting the North East particularly badly.
Up until this point the levelling up plans seem to consist of little more than pouring steel and concrete into shiny new infrastructure projects.
Some of these projects effect my constituency of Wansbeck. The reopening of passenger trains on the Northumberland Line is a welcome development which the local Labour group has long campaigned for, and the work starting on a new Gigafactory has the potential to create thousands of new, much needed jobs.
But this alone is not enough. There must be a structural change that can shift the balance of power away from the privileged few and back into the hands of the many who have been held back for too long.
It is no good creating a new trainline without offering the proper investment into the infrastructure of our towns, or the inevitable result is that the trainline becomes yet another funnel out of the region rather than into it.
Nor can you build a claim to be creating new jobs while slashing school budgets down to the bone so people aren’t qualified to successfully apply for them, or allowing companies to hire workers on exploitative unstable contracts and wages so low they do not even cover the basics (around 40% of those affected by the £20 cut to universal credit are in work).
Infrastructure programs that are focused on expanding the horizons of opportunity are ultimately flawed unless they come with the corresponding levels of investment that allow disadvantaged young people in particular to have the skills in place to take advantage of that opportunity.
The outlook for a child born into a disadvantaged family today is dramatically different to one born into a financially comfortable one. They can expect to live shorter lives in poorer health both physically and mentally, achieve worse results in schools, earn considerably less over their lifetime, find themselves more likely to be involved in crime and are far less likely to be financially stable themselves as they enter adulthood.
Therefore, in order to be a success, a levelling up program must tap into much deeper structural inequalities that pervade our communities and are present among our children from the very beginning of their lives.
Alongside this, it must recognise the current crises we face going forward that cannot simply be swept under the carpet. Both a rapidly ageing population and the threat of climate change that are often forgotten in the levelling up narrative need to be taken into account while developing a long-term plan for the future of communities in the North. If not, as always it will be the most vulnerable that feel the full brunt of our ignorance.
This is a time for bold strokes and the fresh ideas that levelling up should be about. This is not the time for penny pinching, and to be taking away the extra £20 that families are relying on to put food on the table. The government must rethink this decision, and rethink just what they mean by levelling up and what it will take to achieve it.
Going forward, I urge the government not to go gently in their levelling up program. As we continue to recover from the pandemic, we find ourselves at a crossroads, with a newfound appreciation for the benefits of public spending and a unique opportunity to swing the balance of power back into the hands of our communities and away from powerful financial interests – we must take the road, that has been unfortunately in the past few decades, less travelled.