The Parallels Between “Levelling Up” and “Back to Basics”

Do you remember “Back to Basics”?  The John Major version that was satirised by Viz magazine, not the Christine Aguilera album.  

Major advocated a Britain based on morality and decency, but the campaign was ridiculed when a succession of Conservative politicians were embroiled in scandals.  Some lied under oath and eventually went to prison.  Despite leading this moral crusade, it later emerged that John Major had an extra-marital affair with Edwina Currie.  That’s their business, but Prime Ministers should not set standards for others that they don’t keep themselves…

There’s an obvious parallel between “Levelling Up” and “Back to Basics.”  We’ve been waiting for the Levelling Up White Paper for 2 years, and it arrived on Wednesday.  It contains 12 missions from improving primary education to reducing crime.  I’ve never met anyone in any political party who advocates for worse education or increasing crime.  The disagreements are about how we achieve it, and where the money comes from.  This White Paper doesn’t answer the money question.  In fact, it doesn’t even say how much money is needed.  It’s more of a wish list, really. 

What is significant is the White Paper’s commitment to devolution.  It recognises the success of Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) including the North of Tyne.  Given that 8 out of 10 MCAs are led by Labour Mayors, that can only be because the evidence backs it up. 

In the North of Tyne, we’re exceeding our job creation targets by a factor of 4.  For every £1 we spend, we lever in over £3 of investment.  Every £1 we spend creating jobs returns over £3 to Treasury in increased taxes.  The North of Tyne is astonishing value for money. 

I’ve been Mayor for less than 3 years, and along with my local authority colleagues in Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside, we’re delivering more than 4,487 new jobs, saved 2,679 jobs despite the economic impact of Covid, created 28,800 training courses so people can skill-up and earn more, and supported 1,707 businesses with guidance and advice.  I want the rest of the region, South of the Tyne, to get the same benefits.

The White Paper now officially states the Government position is to expand the Mayoral Combined Authority for the North East.  It’s good news – we’re all the same conurbation.  And it unlocks £100’s of millions in transport funding. 

To be a good deal for the North East, it will have to extend our existing North of Tyne funds based on the population of the extended area.  There can be no loss of funding on a per-capita basis. I’ve been talking to Treasury, Transport and Local Government ministers for the past two years about this extra devolved funding.  It’s now within sight. 

If we can make it happen, it will bring in well over £1 billion of new money to our region.  It is much needed – our local authorities have faced severe cuts over the past decade of austerity.  For the record, I still think our local authorities need their full funding restored.  Social care, emptying the bins, parks and leisure centres, libraries and street lighting, and so much more is the province of local councils. 

The role of an MCA is about making the region prosperous across local council boundaries.  That means transport across our region – better buses, and expanding the Metro.  More firms investing here from outside, and more start ups and scale ups inside our region.  More research and development, and making sure the spin off companies are based here.  The training programmes to make sure these jobs are available for everyone whatever their background.  All based on a green economy, with a thriving cultural scene. 

For me, levelling up is back to basics.  It means nobody needing to use a food bank.  Everyone able to get where they want to go, affordably.  A secure warm home within everyone’s means.  Every parent confident that their children have a good life ahead of them – here, in the North East, if they choose to stay.  Travel is great – but we’ll know the North East has levelled up when no one has to move away to earn a decent living. 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 7 Feb 2022