What is levelling up? Like many, this is a question I’ve pondered over the last two years since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. With Michael Gove promising to finally release his long-delayed white paper on levelling up this month, the meaning of this catchword has come into question again.
We’ve had a bundle of separate fundus announced, including the Levelling Up Fund, Towns Fund and High Streets Fund (a lot of which went to local councils of Tory ministers…). We’ve heard the announcement of the UK Infrastructure Bank that will invest in a green industrial revolution. Disappointingly, we have also witnessed the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail and seeming intent of the Government acquiesce to the possible privatisation of Channel 4, risking the new base in Leeds. Levelling up? We seem to be scaling back. The potential for our region is limitless – if only Government’s matched our ambition with action.
I don’t intend to be overtly political about levelling up. There is potential for meaningful, beneficial change for towns like Huddersfield, but levelling up can only be achieved with substantial bold action and a long-term commitment to provide the necessary funding. Levelling up must also be part of a broader environmental strategy to decarbonise the UK economy and gain an international advantage when it comes to the green industries of the future. Pontificating about Medici-style ‘renaissance towns’ from Michael Gove will not help the North or address the climate crisis; rather we he must recognise that the solutions to climate change and a failure to devolve real power and investment to the regions are the same.
Levelling up must be sustainable. It can form part of a new integrated approach to the environment and economy that puts sustainable development at the heart. The more we wake up to the realities of climate change, the greater action we realise we must take to combat this serious and alarming threat. But with challenge, there is opportunity, and it is one which the Government to take. The opportunity is to develop our towns, cities, and communities sustainably.
For example, the UK Infrastructure Bank has a mandate to tackle climate change and level up, what potential this has to kickstart investment in green industries across the North. From investment in hydrogen fuel and storage to carbon capture, with targeted support and real commitment, the UK could be at the cutting edge of developing the new industries of the future. We can also level-up our natural environment, by investing in nature recovery networks and rewilding, simultaneously tackling the biodiversity crisis, and boosting health, wellbeing and quality of life for all those across our communities.
The Government must follow through on its plans to level-up, not just to follow through on a ‘commitment’ they’ve made, but because missing the opportunities of sustainable development would be mad. Towns like Huddersfield could be at the forefront of these new industries, creating jobs for thousands across the whole North. The reality is that if the Government misses this opportunity, those jobs will go elsewhere, leaving our country worse off than before.
I’m calling for the Government to commit to levelling-up our towns and cities sustainably, and to take the opportunity that transitioning to a green economy provides. I have written to Michael Gove asking for a commitment to make levelling-up sustainable to ensure that our regions benefit as we transition to a greener way of life. The opportunities are there. My question to the Government is – are you bold enough to take them?