The author of Leveling Up uses the discourse in the North East to define his view of the regions of the UK

At any other time – without Brexit, Covid, the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis – the government’s race-to-the-top agenda would surely make more headlines.

Improving regional economies to provide more opportunities for people living in places like the North East, while preventing London and the South East from overheating, is a prize that has eluded governments for decades.

Many felt that, like the Northern power station before it, upgrade was a good slogan, but not much more – thrown around by ministers when something positive happened in the North and used as a stick to beat them when things were going. wrong.

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February’s Leveling Up white paper at least added some substance to the soundbite, outlining 12 national “missions” that define leveling up and encompass everything from local pride and economy to skill levels, public transport and decentralization.

Although delivered by Leveling Up secretary Michael Gove, the white paper is generally considered to be largely the work of Andy Haldane, a former chief economist at the Bank of England who can claim North East roots thanks to a Geordie mother and a father from Sunderland.

And at a recent lecture at the University of Sunderland, Mr Haldane revealed how his experience in the North East has influenced his thinking about regional inequalities in the UK.

“Places like Sunderland are the reason why, in the early 1980s, a time of deep entrenched recessions, when deindustrialisation was at its height: it was what made me want to study economics. That’s why I continued to be a civil servant for 32 years and that’s why I took up Boris’s challenge last year to help level up. And there’s no had a single day in my professional career where I didn’t think about trying to improve the lot and expand the opportunities of places across the UK, many places like Sunderland That’s why this program is so important.

In his lecture, Mr Haldane said the UK had deep and entrenched inequalities that were impossible to justify morally or economically. But he said that despite places like London having higher pay levels and better health than places like the North East, people in the capital were often more unhappy, in part because of the effects of overheating its economy.

“The UK’s spatial disparities don’t work for places with poor pay or for those who are successful,” he said. “So if we close these disparities, it will be a double win – good news for those who are in bad financial shape and also for those who are financially healthy but everyone else is having a miserable time.”

Removing regional inequalities, he said, would be worth “tens of billions of pounds every year permanently”, adding: “The size of the price of upgrading, this bilateral victory of reducing differences to across the UK, is huge.”

But he said it was important to recognize that this gap needed to be closed in many ways, hence the 12 missions in the White Paper.

“I would have loved if I had captured the upgrade mission in just one way, but the truth is if you look at the key ingredients for success in one place, they’re not unique, they’re multiple. are economic and financial, they are social and cultural, they are about leadership, all of which are crucial in a place’s recipe for success.

“That’s why when it came to defining what upgrade success might look like, we couldn’t be singular, we had to go plural, and that plurality was reflected in 12 missions upgrade.”

Mr Haldane rejected the main criticism leveled at the white paper on the race to the top since its publication, namely that it is strong on ambition but weak on the actual financial commitment of the government. That assessment was only bolstered by the government’s recent spring statement, which made little reference to upgrading, but Mr Haldane thinks much of the support for his ambitions shouldn’t come from outside anyway. public sources.

“The key here is not for the government to write a check and then walk away,” he said. “The key is to provide just enough money to reduce the risk of projects enough to attract private funding. That’s how you go about leveling the UK. There is a huge pool of private sector capital at the looking for returns. The returns are in. Connect this great pool of capital to local projects and great things will happen.

“People say, ‘Rishi didn’t give you any fresh money.’ I don’t need fresh money. I hope most of it will come from the private sector. This is the secret sauce to upgrade success and it requires a different role for government than it has played in the past.

Whether Mr. Haldane’s optimism for the leveling-up program will bear fruit remains to be seen. The government has set the date of 2030 for the accomplishment of its missions, which means that at least two general elections will take place before ministers can be held properly accountable.

Last week, however, the influential Institute for Government cast doubt on the program’s ability to adequately reduce regional inequalities, saying only four of the 12 missions are clear, ambitious and have appropriate measures. The other eight all need to be recalibrated if they are to deliver on the government’s promises to level the UK.

He also argued that five of the missions are not ambitious enough, meaning little or no change would be needed to achieve them, but three missions are too ambitious to be realistic.

Mr. Haldane’s optimism about Leveling Up, however, remains intact.

“If I’m even half correct with my diagnosis,” he said, “it’s just time for Sunderland to realize that latent energy and realize their potential, then what has been my life’s work will have been accomplished and I can retire a happy man.”

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