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‘Levelling up’ funding not enough, says Bishop of Sheffield

02 February 2022

Alamy

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, Michael Gove, in media interviews in Westminster on Wednesday, shadowed by a protester

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, Michael Gove, in media interviews in Westminster on Wednesday, shadowed by a protes...

FUNDING set aside to regenerate 20 towns and cities outlined in the Government White Paper Levelling Up, “barely begins to address the chronic under-investment of recent decades”, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, has warned.

The White Paper, published on Wednesday, consists of 12 “national missions” to be achieved by 2030, including missions to close gaps in wealth, employment, education, training, 5G broadband, homeownership, and life expectancy in the UK — particularly between the north and south of England. It also pledges to reduce homicide and serious violence in the worst-affected areas, and offer a “London-style” devolution deal to every part of England which requests one, supported by the £2.6-billion UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which is to be decentralised to local leaders.

One of the central proposals is to “restore local pride” in 20 towns and cities, beginning with Wolverhampton and Sheffield, with “King’s Cross-style” regeneration projects. To fund this, from April, £1.5 billion of the £1.8 million announced in the October Budget to bring 1500 hectares of brownfield land into use will be redirected towards the north and the Midlands.

In November, Wolverhampton and Sheffield were respectively promised £20 million and £37 million towards the scheme; a further £28 million was allocated to the West Midlands Combined Authority, and £13 million for the South Yorkshire Combined Authority on Sunday.

Dr Wilcox said on Wednesday: “While it is obviously great news for the people of South Yorkshire that Sheffield will benefit from ‘levelling up’ funding, the initially promised funding barely begins to address the chronic under-investment of recent decades. It remains to be seen whether the latest government initiative will be ambitious enough or sustained for long enough to make a lasting difference in the most deprived communities of our region.”

Early criticisms of the White Paper focus on a lack of fresh funding for the infrastructure and regeneration and other schemes referred to in the report, most of which is being diverted from pre-existing funds. The Labour MP and Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, Lisa Nandy, has described the brownfield funding as “recycled money”.

Charities made similar criticisms. While cautiously welcoming the main proposals, the deputy director of policy and partnerships at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Katie Schmuecker, said on Wednesday that “the proof will be in the delivery.”

“A focus on rising employment, pay, and productivity will only succeed if it delivers better jobs and pay for people on the lowest incomes. To make this happen, we need to see investment in skills, child care, local transport, and affordable housing. . .

“We welcome the wide-ranging set of missions and targets, but, as ever, the proof will be in the delivery. Local areas must be trusted to make decisions about what is best for them, and, crucially, must be given the investment and powers they need to achieve this. The lack of new funding announced today, and an approach to devolution that appears to be quite centrally controlled, suggest more needs to be done before the reality of these plans meets the rhetoric.”

In a promise similar to proposals made by the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing last year (News, 21 February 2021), the Government has pledged to enforce a minimum standard of living conditions for rented housing. It also makes a commitment to building affordable social housing and increasing cultural spending outside London. Other proposals include a £230-million investment in grass-roots football.

Ms Schmuecker said: “Plans to reform the private rented sector are long overdue, and really welcome to see. If done well, they will drive up standards and strengthen tenants’ rights, creating a more just housing system.”

The chief executive of Housing Justice, Kathy Mohan, said: “Housing is the great leveller, the best way to increase equality of opportunity. . . The Government’s White Paper begins to think about addressing the vast housing inequality in England, finally making good on the promise to end no-fault evictions, extending the decent homes standard to homes rented privately, better regulation to improve standards in social housing, and promising to build more genuinely affordable homes.

“We also know that, where local communities are given real powers, such as Greater Manchester, housing and homelessness are prioritised, and the results are stark. But, welcome as the good intentions in the White Paper are, the housing crisis in England demands deeds, not just words, and the Government must now make good on its rhetoric.”

The head of external affairs for Christians Against Poverty, Gareth McNab, also welcomed more protection for private renters, as well as plans to tackle illiteracy, innumeracy, and health equality.

“True levelling-up is a big task,” he said, “and the widespread poverty and disadvantage we see across the UK through our services needs significant joined-up and sustained investment. This paper is a starting point.”

The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, agreed that the plans needed to be properly sourced. “A whole new swathe of Mayors and devolution deals will achieve nothing if local authorities simply don’t have the money to spend on life-changing and life-saving services for children and young people.” More focus was also needed on child poverty and well-being. 

“The focus on living standards ignores the elephant in the room: child poverty, where the evidence shows that work still isn’t the lifeline it should be. If children are living in households where they can’t afford the basics like food, clothing or heating, they aren’t going to be able to have the best outcomes.”

He continued: “We’re concerned to see the focus continues to be on ‘the worst affected areas’. Investment is needed across the country. . . Children need the Government to be more ambitious for them than improving their English and maths results.” 

The chief of UK Advocacy and Policy at Christian Aid, Jennifer Larbie, said that, much like the vaccine roll-out, UK levelling up could not be achieved until global poverty had been addressed.

“The pandemic continues to threaten an already fragile recovery, hurting the poorest the hardest,” she said. “It is right, then, that the Government looks to close the gap between rich and poor across the UK. But poverty is not just local: it is global. If the UK is serious about tackling poverty, the Government must restore the UK aid budget. That is the levelling up people on the brink of famine and humanitarian-disaster need.”

The White Paper was first announced last May by the Prime Minister, who said at the time that it would outline “bold new policy interventions” and “boost livelihoods” as the country recovered from the pandemic. The term “levelling up” featured in the Queen’s Speech later that month (News, 14 May 2021).

Michael Gove was named Levelling Up Secretary in the Cabinet reshuffle in September, to speed progress. Launching the report on Wednesday morning, he said that the plan was to “end the cycle of decline” experienced by “overlooked and undervalued” communities across the UK.

“Levelling Up and this White Paper is about ending this historic injustice and calling time on the postcode lottery. This will not be an easy task, and it won’t happen overnight, but our 12 new national levelling-up missions will drive real change in towns and cities across the UK, so that where you live will no longer determine how far you can go.”

Mr Johnson said that, while the challenges could not be “dug out overnight”, the White Paper was an important next step.

On Thursday, the St Vincent de Paul Society described the White Paper as a “missed opportunity” to address UK inequality. Its chief executive, Elizabeth Palmer, said that change must be acheived through “those who are supporting people in need and those being supported. Without listening to the voices of people who are directly and indirectly affected by regional inequalities the Government cannot hope to direct funding where it is most needed. . . I hope the aims of this White Paper will be realised, only then will our poorest communities have the economic and social infrastructure to lift themselves into a position of parity with the rest of the country.”

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