It’s about jobs, stupid

What does “levelling-up” mean to you?  Getting more investment into the North of England?  Closing the life-expectancy gap, perhaps?  Reversing the historic under-funding of the North’s transport infrastructure? 

I’d hoped the Prime Minister’s much-trailed speech on levelling-up would define it.  His 32-minute speech, his “Vision to Level up the United Kingdom”, covered everything from football pitches to bus stops, via a detour into chewing gum on pavements.  At one point he said if anyone can think of a better idea, send me an email.  I imagined his speech writers face-palming in the wings. 

The commentariat were scathing.  An “everything and nothing policy” according to the chair of Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee. 

Back in October 2020 I gave evidence to that Parliamentary committee. I talked about the need for Government clarity on levelling-up.  How it would be put in to practice in regions such as ours. I spoke of the need to give the North control over our own wealth creation.  The powers to turbocharge our ability to create good jobs. Nearly a year down the line and the Government’s levelling-up plans remain as opaque as ever.

Levelling-up is a catch-all phrase designed for electioneering.  Mr Johnson keeps it deliberately vague – that way he can never fail to achieve it.  Come election time, he’ll claim it a success, regardless of the fact that all of the money earmarked for Northern Powerhouse Rail – to connect Northern cities – is being squandered on HS2.  It’s notable the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), due out last year, then January, then Easter, then in July, has been pushed back again.  It seems the IRP is Samuel Beckett’s much anticipated sequel to Waiting for Godot. 

Progressive patriotism is another vapid slogan.  It’s all about branding, I’m told.  We have to “position ourselves”.  You need to raise your profile.  I hear it all the time in political circles.  Well, if I’d wanted to repeat catch-phrases, I’d have become a game show host.  I became Mayor to fix things. 

And I love my job as Mayor.  Last week I signed off two more investments to create highly paid jobs in the software industry.  I’ll not steal the thunder of the companies’ own announcements and name them, but they’re 100 and 94 jobs respectively. 

I may have started the article criticising the PM’s speech, but so did many in his own party.  But once you’re in government, as I am, that means building partnerships to get things delivered.  The electorate expect us to work together to fix things. 

At Tuesday’s North of Tyne Cabinet for example, we agreed an allocation of £7 million to develop 5G and future connectivity programme. This positions us at the forefront of new technology investments.  Developing test facilities and business cases to secure even more high-tech jobs and facilitate lower-carbon living. 

At the same cabinet meeting we approved our Digital Development Cluster, to create 182 jobs, and the Talent Engine with Dynamo creating another 150.  We agreed funding of £1 million to support “Town and High Street” recovery innovation projects across our three local authorities.  

And we’re working with New Writing North to bring publishing houses to the disused buildings in Clayton Street in Newcastle.   These investments will bring new jobs in addition to the 4,193 jobs already in place or in the pipeline.

Job creation is an art – there’s lots of ingredients go into the recipe.  I’ve been working with BritishVolt since last year, along with our partners in Northumberland who’ve sorted the land deal.  Last Tuesday, they broke ground on the new electric-vehicle battery gigafactory.  That’s another 3000 jobs on top of the 4,193 already in the pipeline.  There’s another 5000 in the BritishVolt supply chain.  We’ll be working to develop the skills programme to bring those jobs here – which we can do, because the skills budget has been devolved to the North of Tyne.  Along with transport and digital infrastructure, investment in training and eduction is a key enabler of job creation.

So what does levelling-up mean to me?  If I can paraphrase Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “It’s about jobs, stupid.”  Because that’s what levelling-up is all about: creating well paid, secure jobs, so everyone has a future. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 02 August 2021