Levelling down

December 7, 2020

The recent stand-off between Greater Manchester and the Government over coronavirus restrictions and financial support was the latest episode in a long-standing saga often referred to as the North/South divide. Richard Dawson hears directly from metro mayors Andy Burnham and Jamie Driscoll about how the promise of levelling up the regions is not being delivered.

There was something eerily familiar about the dispute which broke out between Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, and the Government this October.

It was not the first time in recent history that communities in the North of England have found themselves pitted against an unyielding Westminster.

The same thing happened in the 1980s during the infamous Miners’ Strike.

Described as ‘the most bitter industrial dispute in British history’, the 1984-85 strike was characterised by violent clashes between police and pickets and resulted in mass pit closures across the country.

A lack of meaningful dialogue between trade unions and the Government exacerbated the discord and precipitated an unemployment crisis that the North of England still bears the scars of today.

When I saw that image of Andy Burnham finding out on live TV that the Government had unilaterally decided to put Greater Manchester into Tier 3 restrictions without adequate funding, I couldn’t help but feel like history was repeating itself.

In 1984, no one was questioning the future viability of coal mining in the UK. The writing had been on the wall for the industry since the 1960s.

The dispute arose from a lack of co-operation and assistance from a Government that did not seem interested in the fate of the many thousands of miners who were going to lose their jobs.

It was a similar thing happening this time around.

Andy Burnham was not questioning the need for further restrictions to get the pandemic under control. He just wanted to know what the Government was going to do to support the people and businesses put at risk by such restrictions.

On October 31, the dispute came to a disorderly resolution after the Government announced a second national lockdown and the extension of the furlough scheme.

But the whole episode was revealing in that it showed the Government’s true colours.

Successive prime ministers have promised to close the immense gap between the North of England and the South, from David Cameron’s Northern Powerhouse initiative to Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda.

And yet across many key indicators, the North/South divide has actually widened over the last decade.

From productivity, income and employment to investment, health and local services, the UK is often described as the most regionally unequal country in the developed world.

Couple that with the way local leaders and the regions they represent have been treated during the coronavirus pandemic and one has to wonder whether the Government is really serious about tackling regional inequalities after all.

Mayor Burnham says: “It took the national lockdown to address all of the issues surrounding furlough, but why wasn’t it addressed when we were negotiating for a fair deal for Greater Manchester?

“If you are having to close businesses by order of the Government, the people that work in those businesses should be given equal treatment wherever they are in the country.

“I would say the Government’s treatment of Greater Manchester has resulted in a levelling down of the region – they have completely forgotten the promises of levelling up.”

The dispute was also a concrete example of why devolution and local leadership are so important – something the North East has been slow to accept.

The region voted overwhelmingly against establishing a regional assembly in 2004 and since then a fractured devolution landscape has emerged.

The North East Combined Authority (NECA) covers Sunderland, South Tyneside, Durham and Gateshead, while the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) covers Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside, and the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) covers Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton-on-Tees.

If it sounds odd that the smallest region in the UK both by population and GDP should have three separate devolution deals, each with varying degrees of power and funding, that’s because it is.

But it stems from a belief that metro mayors can’t really do much for their communities. Andy Burnham’s act of defiance back in October put paid to that idea and demonstrated that while the North of England may not yet have the wealth and resources of the South, it at least now has a voice.

Mayor Burnham adds: “Local leaders and metro mayors have the unique ability to speak for millions of people.

“The job is to represent communities as effectively as you can, and to speak out for those people who are often neglected by Westminster.

“Sometimes people do have to hold Governments to account, and it is important local leaders do use their voice to step up and challenge them when necessary.”

Jamie Driscoll, mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority

“Levelling up can’t just be about concrete. Levelling up is about people.

“It’s about making sure everybody has a chance at a decent prosperous life where they can contribute to society.

“I spend my time talking to business groups, ministers and secretaries of state trying to make this happen. Ultimately, the Government has to make a decision – are they serious about levelling up?

“We’ve seen the effects of centralisation with coronavirus and trying to micromanage outbreaks in local areas from a central call centre. It just doesn’t work.

“No corporation would try and micromanage a distant branch from the centre. That’s why they have local managers.

“It’s the same with the Government. Mayors and local authorities know their areas. Mayors convene, they work with everybody and they know what’s needed.

“The Government needs to listen. Devolve power and resources and we can show you how to create sustainable growth.”

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Drop the platitudes and address the problems