Paul Howell: Left behind communities must be the priority as the Government plots a recovery from the Covid pandemic

16 Apr

Paul Howell MP for Sedgefield & co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

Since I was elected in December 2019, the world has become a very different place. As I entered office, I pledged to support the Government’s “levelling up” agenda but I feel it’s now more important than ever, as the pandemic has tended to hit communities which were already struggling the hardest.

In my role as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, I’ve seen data and heard stories demonstrating the numerous difficulties these neighbourhoods face over the past year.

Most recently, we looked at the difference good transport connectivity can make, an issue I’m familiar with from my own constituency and the efforts I have made alongside local people to secure investment to reopen a local railway station. I know public transport can mean the difference between access to employment opportunities or unemployment, and in some cases a lack of access to life-saving services.

The APPG’s latest report, Connecting communities: improving transport to get ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods back on track produced by Campaign for Better Transport draws on the latest research and data. It highlights how people living in “left behind” areas, which are predominantly in post-industrial and coastal areas in the North and the Midlands on the edge of towns and cities, suffer from the highest levels of economic deprivation.

They also have low levels of physical connectivity – 84 per cent of “left behind” neighbourhoods have worse connectivity than the average across England. Many are more reliant on public transport as 40 per cent of households have no car, compared to 26 per cent which is the national average.

The report also examines the impact of the 1960s Beeching cuts to the railway system and found that 50 per cent of all rail stations in “left behind” neighbourhoods were closed following the landmark report, while 74 per cent have no rail station at all now compared to 60 per cent pre-1960s.

I’m grateful that in my constituency of Sedgefield, Ferryhill station has been awarded government funding to help restore it. Once re-opened the station will provide a link for local people to nearby towns and cities, making opportunities slightly further afield more accessible.

The re-opening of this station is a comparatively low-cost project but will open the North’s railways system to many who need it.

Ferryhill is one of 15 rail schemes awarded up to £50,000 to accelerate plans that could restore lines and stations to communities, but for many people across the country there is still a dire need for better rail and bus links to connect them to essential services.

225 “left behind” neighbourhoods in England not only rank within the top 10 per cent of places on the Index of Multiple Deprivation, but also within the same percentile of the Community Needs Index (CNI). The CNI considers the provision of places to meet, the presence of an active and engaged community and how connected a place is, both in terms of digital connectivity and transport provision. The combination of these factors leaves “left behind” neighbourhoods in a vulnerable place, with little opportunity or resources to improve their own outcomes.

However, what we have also seen demonstrated through evidence given at the APPG for “left behind” neighbourhoods is that when deprived places receive targeted, hyper-local funding, these opportunities don’t seem so unattainable. Where there are places to meet, and spaces for people to form connections and ideas, and identify funding to help get projects off the ground, residents can make a huge difference, because it is local people who know what is best for their area.

In terms of transport, local funding could lead to support for a community minibus to help those who are less mobile get to the town centre or to a hospital appointment, or it might help to create a community-led transport strategy for discussion with their local authority. What is important is that residents have the opportunity to determine their own needs and access services that meet them and it’s because of this that it is investment in both people and places that will deliver the best outcomes in the long-term for residents of “left behind” neighbourhoods.

I’m pleased to see the Government’s Bus Back Better strategy’s pledge to invest in local authorities to help them deliver better local bus provision, as well as a mention of community consultation. It seems like this foundational investment in our country’s buses will be a brilliant start to reconnecting some of our most “left behind” neighbourhoods.

But, if we are to achieve long-term lasting change in these places, we must also build capacity and confidence within communities, so they are able to advocate for their needs, as well as investment in the vital social infrastructure they rely upon.

As we hopefully leave the most immediate effects of the pandemic behind us, the longer-term repercussions will undoubtedly be felt for some time. It is critical that we not only stimulate the UK economy, but also prioritise the important process of levelling up to ensure communities which have already suffered for so long do not fall even further behind.

Paul Howell: CCHQ North will only work if party members feel real ownership of it

22 Oct

Paul Howell is MP for Sedgefield.

In December last year, “things can only get better” boomed out at CCHQ on election night as Sedgefield, the former Commons seat of Tony Blair, fell and the Conservative Party clinched its first sizable majority since the years of Margaret Thatcher.

As the MP for this totemic seat, I believe I know more than most how we demolished the “Red Wall”, and how we can cement its blue replacement. We are now the party of the North, and we must stay the party of the North. What we do next will be critical in that objective.

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact – on the North and on the whole country. We are rightly spending a considerable amount of our time and resources on the fight against the virus, on saving the economy and on the search for a vaccine.

With strong leadership and by working together, we will beat this virus. Then our efforts will turn to the recovery, and how we create a fair and balanced country that works for everyone, wherever they live. The levelling up agenda was a major factor in our election win last year: the vision for addressing the longstanding, structural inequalities that exist between North and South and creating a more balanced, prosperous UK.

Levelling up is a long-term ambition, a demonstration to the party’s commitment to the North. But it is also part of the immediate recovery from the pandemic.

Alongside around 30 of my Northern Conservative MP colleagues, I have joined the Northern Research Group (NRG) – a powerful collection of MPs across the North who will ensure that we deliver a Northern Powerhouse and achieve levelling up.

Together, we can be greater than the sum of our parts, and make the compelling, evidence-based case for investment in the North. Whether the matter to hand is delivering high speed rail, making sure the most disadvantaged children don’t fall behind in their schooling, or creating jobs for the next generation in sustainable industries such as hydrogen and advanced manufacturing, the NRG is integral to the future of the communities we serve,

We are already seeing the impact on the ground. Our members have been working closely with local business leaders to ensure they get what they need from government, and that their businesses and communities are protected. And we will make sure government have a clear and fair plan for how we exit the Covid restrictions, and that businesses get the support they need.

The NRG is a further sign of our commitment to the North. When it was first suggested that CCHQ should open a new headquarters in a part of it, some commentators derided the idea. “It will never happen.” “The story has just been briefed as a distraction.” “Don’t fall for it.” Funnily enough, I haven’t seen the string of apologies from these commentators when this was confirmed at our virtual Conservative Party conference.

What particularly pleased me when the plans for a CCHQ North were first mooted was that it was clear that it wasn’t simply envisaged as a basic call centre and print shop – essential though these functions are. Instead, there was talk of it being located close to the Norths’s brightest and best graduates and data scientists. As important is  devolving real responsibility and control to party members in the North to enable them to properly defend and represent the constituencies that make up the new ‘Blue Wall’ and beyond.

As Conservatives, we know that power is best exercised at the lowest practical level – hence the importance of ‘Taking Back Control’, matching our commitment to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with plans being drawn up to create more mayors across the North.

This applies to political parties, too. CCHQ North will only work if party members feel real ownership of their headquarters, and the responsibility for making it a success. We need a dedicated campaign team to direct local professional campaign managers in every target seat. We need Treasurers to build a fighting fund to support the revival of Conservative Associations in the seats we won in December. We need a mechanism for Northern MPs to be able to feed in their ideas and local knowledge, and to direct campaigning activity to ensure we are effective election winning machine. And we need a Northern Party Board.

Ben Elliot and Amanda Milling should be hugely congratulated for proving the sceptics wrong, and I look forward to hearing more about their plans for CCHQ Nort hnext week. But if we are going to build an organisation that is sustainable and potent, it’s essential for Northern Members of Parliament and councillors to be put in charge of what comes next.

To defend Sedgefield at the next general election, and to grow our representation in local government in the North of England, it is essential for the Conservative Party to have a strong Northern presence. And we should all play our part to ensure that CCHQ North is a real fighting force, and a worthy campaign HQ for the world’s most successful political party.