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Paul Vallely: Hills of the north, revolt, once again

26 November 2021

It has been a bad week for levelling up, says Paul Vallely


The head of the Confederation of British Industry welcomes Boris Johnson to the stage to speak at its annual conference in South Shields, on Monday

The head of the Confederation of British Industry welcomes Boris Johnson to the stage to speak at its annual conference in South Shields, on Monday

THE north is in revolt once again. The axing of new train lines, the lopsided burdens created by the reform of care for the elderly, and the lack of detail on how to stimulate the nation’s economic regions — all this has, in one week, cast new doubt on the Government’s manifesto pledges about “levelling up”. And it is the north of England which will bear the brunt.

Boris Johnson’s decision to cancel the high-speed train link up to Leeds, with the failure to build a new line from Liverpool through Manchester and Bradford to Leeds, leaves the north’s economy dependent on creaky Victorian infrastructure. It will also create a new east-west divide, by lumbering Leeds, York, Hull, and Newcastle with journey times to the capital three times as long as the new HS2 route from Manchester to London. This is second-class rail travel with a vengeance.

The Government’s social-care reforms contain another south-north bias. The plan to make everyone pay up to £86,000 for care will leave a southerner owning a million-pound house with more than 90 per cent of their wealth. In contrast, a northerner in a house worth less than £106,000 will have almost all their assets wiped away. Since average house prices in the south-east are treble — or more — those in the north-east, the cost of this will fall harder on northerners.

The Confederation of British Industry recognises the need for remedial action. At its annual conference, Mr Johnson was told by the head of the CBI, Tony Danker, that the headquarters of businesses were “too often based in London and the south-east”, while the rest of the UK operated as a “branch-line economy”. Rectifying this could not be left to the free market, which has failed to spread prosperity across the country.

Mr Johnson replied that levelling up was still his “moral mission” and an “economic imperative”. But he offered no detail to flesh out the slogan. The only policy announcement in his shambling speech was that from next year all new buildings in England must install electric-vehicle charging-points.

What is really needed, the CBI boss says, is to harness the climate-change net-zero targets to reindustrialise the English regions with renewable energy, life sciences, biotech, space, and cybersecurity industries. That could make the UK economy bigger than Germany’s.

The mention of Germany is illuminating. At reunification, the productivity gap between West and East Germany was about 60 per cent. Today, eastern Germany’s productivity is 85 per cent that of western Germany. But narrowing the gap has been the work of decades, not years, thanks to the kind of cross-party agreement which is, alas, alien to current British politics.

If this truly is a moral mission for Mr Johnson, then he needs to be reaching out to Sir Keir Starmer to agree a common platform with Labour on how simultaneously to rejuvenate the regions and fight climate change in a programme that last decades.

The problem is that such a long-term investment might not produce results by the next election. So, instead, Mr Johnson chooses to honour his promise — “You won’t have to sell your house to pay for your social care” — only for voters in the south. No wonder the north is furious.

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