John Stevenson is Chairman of the Northern Research Group, and is MP for Carlisle.
It has certainly been an eventful few weeks. But amidst the discussions there remains one constant: the Autumn Statement on November 17 will be unprecedented it its importance. Meanwhile, the country, the markets, and the Government’s agenda, as we edge close to Halloween, we will be flooded with more analysis, more reviews – and unfortunately, more puns.
However, another constant remains, one which has been overlooked. Whatever form the Chancellor’s announcement takes, growing the economy will remain a central plank. The way we presented achieving this to voters in 2019 is via levelling up.
As ConservativeHome readers know, levelling up means improving people’s lives, and closing the gap between the more prosperous areas of the country and those less prosperous. The north in particular has huge growth potential and opportunities to help close this gap. To rebalance the country and grow the national cake, the obvious places to drive such growth are those that have under performed such as the North.
So what should Jeremy Hunt do? The agenda should be all about ensuring that the building blocks of growth are put in place and then appropriate support is given.
First, the Chancellor should announce that the capital budgets allocated for infrastructure will be maintained. Indeed, those projects which are almost ready to go should be fast-tracked wherever possible.
Where there are shortfalls in funding, additional resource should be allocated. A simple example is a road scheme in my constituency which was allocated funding four to five years ago which has just gone to tender.
It is a straight choice – either the road is built, or it is not. It would be short-sighted not to find the additional resource necessary to ensure that such a road is built, particularly if it can start to be built within the next 12 months.
Second, the Government must fast-track investment zones wherever possible. These must avoid any unnecessary bureaucracy which is a natural feature of the civil service pushing back on original ideas.
Such zones should be as large as possible, and should have the freedom to ensure that they are attractive to the private sector and bring in investment as quickly as possible. Again, these zones will demonstrate in a very visible way that the Government is committed to the levelling up agenda, and is utilising additional levers to accelerate and support growth.
Third, they must not lose sight of the fact that it is skills that ultimately matter and drive a modern economy. The commitment from the Prime Minister to the Voxbridge concept is one that must be pursued by the Department of Education.
It is vital that we skill up those people in the northern towns and cities where there is a skills gap. In addition, we should be looking to provide the skills that support the industries that already exist or may come to a particular area. There is always a danger that we train and upskill individuals who then head to other parts of the country, rather than make a commitment to their locality.
The last ingredient to help levelling up is ensuring that the private sector see the north as an area to invest in. Therefore, the infrastructure and skills set are vital. However, the Chancellor should look at additional incentives which he can give to encourage the private sector to invest in the north.
It is sometimes forgotten that such investment will drive up the northern economy, which therefore effectively grows the national economy and closes the gap between the north and the south. These incentives would also help to alleviate some of the pressures (particularly housing) that there are in the south of the country.
Finally, Hunt needs to look at committing an additional pot of money aimed at helping to support and drive the northern economy. West Germany did this when the country was unified, and something similar here over a sustained period would demonstrate to the north that the Government is totally committed to the levelling up agenda and has provided the funds to achieve it. It would also help people to appreciate that although it can’t happen overnight, there is need sustained investment and sustained commitment to achieving this goal.
The prize is a much more rapidly growing northern economy which enhances the overall growth of the country and helps make us a more unified and equal society. Politically, this agenda also makes sense, since it will continue to build on the narrative that it is the Conservative Party that is committed to the north and the Conservative Party that wants the north to succeed.
Labour took the north for granted for years and didn’t make sustained commitment to improving the northern economy or environment. I do not believe that the voters have given up on the Conservative Party, but they are concerned that our initial enthusiasm has waned somewhat.
We therefore need to double-down on our commitment to the levelling up agenda and demonstrate through the commencement of projects throughout the north that it is happening, and also show that we are committed to the north not just in one political cycle but for the foreseeable future. This would be good for the north, good for the country and good for the Conservative Party.