“These funds have been nothing but cynical pork barrel politics from the start, pitting towns starved of funding for decades against one another in a divisive battle for scraps from Westminster.”
By Ian Lavery MP
Over the new year it was announced that a devolution deal has been agreed for the North East that will unlock £4.2 billion of investment over 30 years as well as see powers devolved locally in issues such as transport, skills, housing, and economic development.
This is certainly positive and welcome news. The UK is one of the most centralised and unequal countries in the world with vast regional inequalities that continues to hold the North back. The thinktank IPPR North found in 2021 that in the past 5 years London received £12,147 of funding per person compared to just £8,125 in the North. The South East is home to just a third of the UK’s population but accounts for 45% of the economy and holds 42% of the wealth.
The levelling up fund money from central government that promised to breathe life back into our communities is simply not enough and is not going to the right areas. Reports in September revealed that the levelling up fund had allocated the South East twice as much funding as the North East, and in the latest round of funding a bid to regenerate Ashington town centre was rejected while £19m was sent to the Prime Minister’s own wealthy rural constituency in Richmond.
These funds have been nothing but cynical pork barrel politics from the start, pitting towns starved of funding for decades against one another in a divisive battle for scraps from Westminster. Never has this been more evident than last week when after rejecting the bid for funding for Ashington in my constituency after countless hours of discussion and planning from many individuals and groups to put the bid together, the government announced a £20m package for the neighbouring Blyth constituency who have a Tory MP despite them not even putting forward a bid.
While I welcome funding coming into Blyth, another area in South East Northumberland long held back, this is not how an effective government operates. We cannot be forced to beg for scraps in the form of pockets of funding from whoever’s turn it is to be in the cabinet this month when they will simply ignore the merits of each bid and make decisions based on their own political goals anyway.
With the government treating our region and the people living here as political footballs, is it any wonder that there is a growing appetite for power to be put into the hands of local and regional leaders with a better understanding of the regions character and problems that face us? We have seen how this can be successful in the form of Metro Mayors in recent years. In Manchester the Labour led mayoral administration has made good progress on transport, employment, homelessness, and net zero and headway has been made in Liverpool, Yorkshire, as well as here in the North of Tyne amongst other places.
But this devolution deal must come with the right level of funding and power if it is to make a real difference. £4.2 billion may seem like a big figure, but over 10 years it reduces to just over £52 a year per person in the North East – barely enough to touch the sides of what is needed to level up this long held back region. This is on top of a cut of 79% in funding to councils since 2010 which continue to this day making it incredibly difficult for local councils to implement the meaningful changes needed to make the transformation changes to our communities that are long overdue.
Rather than levelling up, this deal is a small step forward to filling a gaping chasm created by the Conservative Party in the first place. Devolution is a good step forward and has my support. But we need to be more radical and braver in our ideas if we are to truly level up the North East and the rest of our countries forgotten regions in the North.
- Ian Lavery is the MP for Wansbeck and a regular contributor to Labour Outlook, you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.
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