Cllr Ben Bradley is the MP for Mansfield and the Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council.
Levelling up, by its very nature, is not something that can be imposed from London. The Prime Minister was absolutely right last year when he talked about empowering communities and local leaders in order to deliver on this key political, social, and economic priority.
It’s often said that levelling up is just a sound bite, or that it doesn’t mean anything. I wonder if those journalists and commentators are really paying attention, because there is a whole world of work going on. It would be nice to be able to neatly package it all and tie it up with a bow, to present to the public and the media, but it’s not that simple. This programme of work is not just one thing, or another. It’s vast, it’s long term, and it’s a complex map of inter-relating parts.
It’s also different in different parts of the country, because as I said, you can’t dictate local needs from Whitehall. From that perspective, I can only really speak from an East Midlands perspective, but the moves that are afoot in my region could be profound.
We’ve got a whole world of progress being made here in a range of areas, from skills and job creation, to education, infrastructure, and public service reforms. Not much of it is physically visible yet, in all honesty, just a small proportion. These plans are long term. Not all of them are directly Government-led. In some cases, the public sector is just trying to support other stakeholders, and in others it’s entirely privately funded. It doesn’t matter who is doing it, does it, in truth. What matters is outcomes.
So skills then… What is happening in my part of North Nottinghamshire on skills? The major development is a new partnership between Nottingham Trent University and local colleges, starting with West Notts college in my constituency. This means that Mansfield is becoming a University Town, with high quality provision delivered by the country’s most popular university. This partnership is expanding to include other colleges, and for the first time we’re beginning to see a local FE and HE sector that is working together rather than competing for ‘bums on seats’. This is a game changer, as it means in the future we’ll have a more coherent and high quality local offer, and it means that local young people will not have to leave in order to get the kind of qualifications and career they desire. Towns Fund projects for new skills provision around Aerospace, Automation, and more, will come to fruition in the coming years.
We’re a Schools Improvement area in the Department for Education, which means extra funds and support to improve school outcomes in the county’s most disadvantaged areas of Ashfield and Mansfield. We’re having two secondary schools entirely rebuilt, standards are improving, and we’re also talking to the Department about the Schools White Paper and what might be possible over the year ahead. We’re taking big strides in education across all levels.
All of that, and more young people staying in North Notts to learn, means we need to provide them with jobs in the area too. Part of levelling up has to be providing the kinds of high skilled, high paid jobs that local people want and providing them here within commutable distance, as well as, of course, ensuring that they have access to the training and qualifications they need to take those opportunities.
Again, we have a whole range of things going on, including major regionally and nationally significant projects that will create thousands of jobs. The East Midlands Freeport will bring jobs across a range of sectors, like engineering, energy, and logistics to the area. Our East Midlands Development Corporation, which will be finalised in the Levelling Up Bill, is master planning huge areas of the county and working to attract investors in areas like Toton and Ratcliffe-on-Soar, where new commercial and industrial development will interact with recently announced investment in HS2 and local rail projects. I envisage that in the longer term, the DevCo will be able to use its powers and capacity to pick up new sites too and make the most of the potential of areas like the M1 corridor through North Notts and North Derbyshire. We’re in the final stages of bidding for a multi-billion pound investment in STEP Fusion Energy, and Bassetlaw is the perfect future home for the proposed prototype power plant. This too would bring thousands of highly skilled jobs.
I mentioned HS2. Across the country, outside of the London to Birmingham corridor, again our area is set to benefit most. We’ll have four HS2 hubs across Notts and Derbyshire, plus a commitment to growth and a new station at another site at Toton in the middle. We’ll cut the commute from Derby and Nottingham to Birmingham down to 26 minutes, with a £12 billion investment, and open up new local and regional routes too, to connect people in to work. We have plans through the Levelling Up Fund to open up new roads and access routes to further potential development sites, and of course we’re blessed with great access to the M1 and A1 that offer us further opportunity. Lots of potential, and lots of investment.
This is all drawn together under new proposals for regional devolution. The PM was clear that empowering communities and local leaders is key. I hope that the East Midlands will get access to the kind of clout, and the kind of public and private funds, that areas like the West Midlands or Teeside have seen come their way as a result of having these kinds of deals. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are lined up to go first, and in many ways this is one of the biggest opportunities in helping us address the long term regional inequalities that have plagued our part of the country.
We’ve got it all going on! Levelling up isn’t a finished product, nowhere near, but neither is it a soundbite. It’s long term and it’s complex, which is not easily communicated. It’s clear though, as I list just some of the work we’re doing across national and local government, across partner organisations and the private sector, that levelling up has a momentum. The East Midlands has a plan, and it’s local people who are set to benefit, as it comes to fruition over the coming years.