Did the spending review bring in new 'age of the North', or deliver a 'hollow victory' for the region?

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The Chancellor’s spending review has been hailed as bringing in the “age of the North”, but key announcements have been criticised for keeping ultimate power over decisions in Whitehall.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak set out new spending plans today which he unveiled in the Commons against a bleak backdrop for the economy.

However money would go towards what Mr Sunak called a £4bn levelling up fund, alongside the announcement of a new Northern-based UK infrastructure bank and a reformation of the Green Book, which dictates how spending decisions are made.

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The levelling up fund will be designed for investment in local infrastructure that is deliverable within this Parliament and makes a real difference to local areas.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak delivers his one-year Spending Review in the House of Commons. Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica TaylorChancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak delivers his one-year Spending Review in the House of Commons. Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak delivers his one-year Spending Review in the House of Commons. Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

It will be open to all local areas in England and prioritise bids to drive growth and regeneration in places in need, those facing particular challenges, and areas that have received less government investment in recent years.

Documents released by the Treasury said the idea was the money would go towards projects such as “local road schemes, bus lanes, railway station upgrades, regenerating eyesores, upgrading town centres and community infrastructure, and local arts and culture”.

Some £600m will be available for 2020/21, with projects expected to be worth no more than £20m.

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Speaking to The Yorkshire Post Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse Minister and leader of the Northern Research Group made up of 70 Tory backbench MPs, said: “I think the real key thing about it is how quickly it's going to be deployed.”

He said: “People in towns and smaller cities around the North of England have literally waited decades for governments to step up to the plate - different Labour governments, Tory governments, coalition governments - and really get on and deliver them for them, so I hugely welcome the £4bn but what I really welcome is how quickly we are going to get on and put shovels in the ground.”

He said levelling up in the North needed to be something that “changes lives in the short term”, so focussing on smaller projects which can be delivered quickly was key.

While Colne Valley Tory MP Jason McCartney, who is an NRG member, said today marked the beginning of “the age of the North” and especially northern towns.

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He said “I think the beauty of this fund is its deliverability, and it sounds as though it'll have a lot of flexibility.”

He said already he was considering projects in his constituency such as helping regenerate Holmfirth town Centre, or getting disabled access at Marsden railway station.

“We've got the long term projects, which are great, but they're going to take a couple of decades, that's for our children to take benefit from,” he said.

“But these are projects that can make a difference in 2021, 2022, and the next three, four, five or 10 years.”

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But director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership think tank Henri Murison said the pledge was “hollow” as final decisions were still made in Whitehall.

He said: “It feels like a hollow victory to create a £4bn levelling up fund when Whitehall will still get to decide how it is spent.

"It is disappointing we're yet to see targeted investment at the biggest barriers to driving up productivity which can only be done by trusting directly elected metro mayors and their combined authorities - this is the only way we will close the North-South divide."

And Sheffield City Region mayor Dan Jarvis said the plans “lacked clout, coherence and continued to tinker at the margins – when a wholesale transformation was needed to rise to the challenge of the biggest economic upheaval in generations”.

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He said: “Instead of delivering levelling up, the Chancellor put it on hold with unnecessary pilots that pits regions against each other in bids for piecemeal pots of funding.

And he added the “long-arm of the Treasury continues to tighten its grip”

He said: “The Government previously told metro mayors we would lead the economic recovery, yet the Levelling Up Fund and Restart schemes involve more top down control. It is another flawed attempt to deliver the recovery from Westminster.

“Instead, ministers need to let go and back local leaders with investment and powers so we can get on with the job and drive the transformation of our economy from the North, rather than a desk in Whitehall.”

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Director of the IPPR North think tank, Sarah Longlands, said that the “honeymoon period” for the Government was over and “people have been left asking what has been done to level up power and investment across England”.

She said: “A ‘levelling up fund’ of just £4bn, managed by Whitehall, and administered through competitive bidding is not the kind of action that was needed today to meet the ‘levelling up’ rhetoric.

“Here in the North, our region has been especially vulnerable to the economic impact of Covid-19 because our resilience has been eroded by the UK’s deep regional divides and a decade of austerity- both caused by central government. What we really needed today was ambitious plans to empower local leaders and people to lead our recovery from Covid-19, and from our regional divides. What we got was a sticking plaster”.

While IPPR North Research Fellow Marcus Johns added: “Investment in infrastructure is welcome, but today’s announcements are simply not enough to ‘level up’ our nation’s deep infrastructure divides.

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“In fact, on transport alone, if the North had seen the same per person investment as London over the last decade, it would have received £66bn more. £19bn for the whole country next year, including money for potholes is paltry in comparison.

“A National Infrastructure Bank based in the North is welcome. But it must be readily accessible to the North and should have enough resources to deliver an infrastructure revolution that will truly level up.

“In reality, we will only see an ‘infrastructure revolution’ when the government finally realises that local leaders and best placed to drive and deliver it. And that realisation did not happen today.

Mr Berry, however, said some central control was needed.

A supporter of devolution he said: “This leveling up fund is about putting the community and members of parliament and local people in the driving seat.

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“For many of us as northern MPs, we don't want to really be told what our priorities are, we want to set our own priorities.”

But he added: “Ultimately the Government is spending taxpayers money and it needs to make sure that we deliver value for taxpayers money. By putting Members of Parliament, local councils, combined authorities mayors where you have them, and community groups right at the heart of the bidding process and the decision making process, it absolutely puts communities in the driving seat of the levelling up agenda, which is exactly where they should be.”

He said the fund was “striking the right balance”.

The Government will publish a prospectus for the fund and launch the first round of competitions in the New Year.

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