Thursday, February 2

Leveling up: Fewer mayors and more money please as White Paper exposes loss of trust over ‘partygate’ – Bill Carmichael

This was Michael Gove launching the Leveling Up White Paper.

It was almost as if a raft of proposals had been rapidly cobbled together and rushed out in an attempt to knock some other more damaging stories off the headlines.

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Still, we must not be churlish, and anything that shifts “money and power into the hands of working people” should be welcomed because the UK is such an unequal country.

Tracy Brabin and Dan Jarvis are the majors of West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire respectively.

According to the Office for National Statistics, a worker in London is more than twice as productive as a worker in Yorkshire. Productivity per worker in Reading is 60 per cent higher than in Doncaster.

Why is that? Is it simply that people in London work harder than workers in the regions? Your London friends may tell you that, but the big difference is the amount spent on research and development, both private and public money. For example, 41 per cent of public sector research and development funding is spent on just three regions – London, Oxford and Cambridge.

Here in Yorkshire we have seen this disparity writ large over recent months with the cancellation of the eastern leg of HS2 and the endless delays in improving east-west trans-Pennine links. Public spending on transport in London is more than double that in the North – £877 per head, compared to £314 in northern England.

Is it any wonder that any mention of ‘levelling up’ is likely to result in a skeptical eye roll on the streets of Yorkshire? We’ll believe it when we see it.

What will leveling up mean for Yorkshire and the North?

Yet, if we could reduce the regional inequalities, it would not only improve lives in the North, but it would unleash a mass of dormant potential and be a tremendous economic boost to the country as a whole.

But governments have been trying to ‘level up’ for decades, and the problem has only got worse. What is different this time? Mr Gove has identified areas that need attention – improved transport links, better education and faster broadband.

And Sheffield, along with Wolverhampton, has been named as the first beneficiary of a £1.5bin regeneration fund to create housing and jobs on derelict brownfield land. This is welcome, but will it be enough? Is there anything else we could try?

One interesting idea, promoted by the Center for Cities think tank, is to develop high value “clusters” – concentrations of interconnected companies, specialist suppliers and other institutions such as universities, that will attract investment and benefit from a skilled labor market.

The UK’s industrial history shows many cities benefiting from such clusters – the cutlery industry in Sheffield, cotton textiles in Manchester and pottery in Stoke-on-Trent.

Similar clusters exist today – pharmaceuticals and biotechnology in Cambridge, financial services in London and ‘Motorsport Valley’ around the Silverstone racing circuit in Northamptonshire that has attracted dozens of specialist engineering and motorsport suppliers.

The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Center at Catcliffe could be the beginning of an exciting new cluster.

The Center for Cities says that such clusters are created when entrepreneurs spot an opportunity and create companies to take advantage of it. But once a cluster has formed, policy makers can help it grow by allocating research and development funding, shaping education and training to provide the necessary skilled workers and improving infrastructure.

But all that takes money – which brings us back to where we started. Mr Gove’s other big idea is to create more regional mayors. I’m an admirer of Dan Jarvis, Andy Burnham and Tracy Brabin, the metro majors for Sheffield, Manchester and West Yorkshire respectively. They have all no doubt done a reasonable job with the limited resources available.

But you would be hard pressed to describe their elections as transformative and I am not convinced that adding another layer of bureaucracy is likely to level up the North.

Instead targeted research and development funding, skilled workers, good transport links and fast broadband, would help the north. In other words, what we need Mr Gove is not more mayors, but more money!

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