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Guest Contributor: Lucy Armstrong

Creating a level playing field

Of all the phrases and policies to have emanated from the top table of Conservative communications HQ in recent years, the ‘levelling-up’ agenda is by far one of the most referenced.

A trusty buzzword for ministers, the slogan is the latest incarnation in a devolution argument that has gone on for years and seen the creation of other Downing Street favourites, such as the Northern Powerhouse.  

But like all legislative programmes, there needs to be flesh on the bones for anything tangible to happen.

And in that regard, work is being delivered in the region to ‘level-up’ the area with the rest of the country.

Government funding has helped a number of schemes get off the ground, and made the North East visible again to those in the corridors of power.

But much work remains to be done.


What does ‘levelling-up’ really mean?

The ‘levelling-up’ agenda is one of the Government’s key goals and one of those buzzwords we constantly see being bandied about. But what does it actually involve? How do you ‘level up’ a region like the North East? Here, Lucy Armstrong, chair at Port of Tyne, explains what ‘levelling-up’ means for one of the UK’s most innovative ports.


The North East has one of the oldest demographics in the UK. 

It is one of the poorest educated in the country and yet we have some of the world’s finest universities and a multitude of innovation assets on our doorstep.

Historically, we’ve been economically relatively poor compared with the rest of Britain, and this is something we at Port of Tyne are acutely conscious of, together with other employers in the North East.

Now, as inflation starts to really bite, improving equality and life chances – aka ‘levelling-up’ – is even more relevant than it was when the latest incarnation of this concept was conceived.

It is a huge undertaking that the UK faces, and it goes way deeper than what any Government funding can achieve. 

Inevitably, some people are always being left behind or forgotten, and it’s our job as local employers and major contributors to regional and national economies to ensure change occurs.

The Government has acknowledged its ‘levelling-up’ agenda is proving more expensive than envisaged, and Port of Tyne is experiencing the effects first hand too. 

Over the past year, we have increased our capital investment into new infrastructure by more than £20 million, as part of our own initiatives and have learned a lot in the process.

In June, I shared some of these learnings at the 2050 Maritime Innovation Hub’s first-ever Maritime Innovation Week, and here are some of the takeaways.

‘Levelling-up’ is about investing in people and acknowledging that everyone has potential. 

There are so many people who are highly-skilled and capable and yet, they somehow remain stuck doing the same thing year-after-year, decade-after-decade. 

These are people with latent potential.

It’s our job as regional employers to recognise that and invest in them.

I think one of the cultural changes we are starting to see at the port is a preparedness to experiment, and this is critical to the success of ‘levelling-up’. 

Some things won’t work, and the most significant achievements often come from accidents, but you can only try. 

Interwoven in this is diversity. 

Maritime is not a sector that is known for its gender diversity, and yet it has so much to offer. 

It’s tricky to address the imbalance if there simply aren’t enough candidates available, but we have worked really hard to address this. We now have equal gender representation within our senior leadership and a largely female board, and we also this year recruited our first female engineering apprentices and graduates.

‘Levelling-up’ needs traditional boundaries to be broken down. 

One thing that could get in the way is the issue of competition for funding. 

The North East has always been partial to ‘tribal’ loyalties.

If individual organisations are doing their bit and investing, there needs to be more equality in terms of the support offered across the region by combined authorities and more opportunities to collaborate. 

We’re building the Dogger Bank Offshore Wind Farm operation here in South Tyneside, but if we want to work with any local suppliers, we can’t tell them to apply for regional offshore wind funding, because it’s funded by the North of Tyne Combined Authority. 

You can only apply if you have a base north of the river, but this isn’t helpful to us at the port when we’re trying to promote offshore wind as an industry for the whole region. 

Everyone deserves an equal chance, and nobody should be left behind. 

That’s what ‘levelling-up’ needs to be about.