Richard Holden: This spring’s local elections. For levelling-up to work, we need local councils and leaders who back it.

29 Mar

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Constituency Office of Richard Holden MP, Medomsley Rd, Consett

The leaflets are landing on doorsteps. The Risograph is working overtime. Walk routes are being updated. First-time council candidates – a heady combination of apprehensive and excited – are getting to know each other on WhatsApp as they make friends with people in other wards. Experienced candidates impart nuggets of wisdom, ‘war stories’ and experience on our zoom calls. Labour’s keyboard warriors fight on , but there is very little sign of life in the party of Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer on the ground.

These elections are taking place in a way that is like nothing I’ve known in two decades of campaigning – after over a year of gruelling Covid-19 restrictions and under the shadow of a virus whose lingering presence, even as Britain’s phenomenal vaccine programme knocks case numbers and deaths down, is still a real concern for many. It’s not been a normal year, and it’s not going to be a normal election.

As a new MP, I can barely remember a time that I wasn’t having to try and help those struggling with Covid-19 or the impact of measures to control it. The long tail of Coronavirus will continue in various guises. Many months of delayed operations and stifled economic growth need to take place. The impact on the education of children will last for years, especially for the poorest, even with the welcome efforts of the Government at top-up tuition. The Government debt taken on to support the people, jobs and businesses through the pandemic will stay for decades.

It is in that context that Rishi Sunak came up with a big offer to business: unprecedented tax relief to try and drive investment and help to deliver knock-on productivity gains. The Treasury and Department of Trade moves to Teesside and the new freeport are massive economic boons, too, for the North East. These moves are not just about the jobs – though that’s the main part. It’s about showing that we both care and want to do something about the problems faced by our new voters in the ‘Blue Wall’.

It’s clear that both the First Lord of the Treasury and the Second Lord of the Treasury “get it”. Short term, the plan is about recovery from Covid-19: getting jobs back and the economy moving again – which they’ve also got a plan for with Kickstarter and support for apprenticeships double.

And for the longer term, jobs in the next industrial revolution are coming down the track: batteries for our car industry and wind power for our transport and electricity. This big push to drive private enterprise to invest now is crucial, because we all know that only productivity gains can lead to real wage increases and the much talked about ‘levelling up’.

As we escape the shadow of Covid-19 we can see that much has changed but some things have stubbornly remained. In many parts of the North, moving back to the status quo ante – pronto – seems to be the order of the day from Labour. The debate over the coal mine on the West Coast of Cumbria brought this home in recent weeks.

To give you a bit of necessary background, Cumbria is a joint Labour/Lib Dem administration. Labour lost overall control in 2017 and formed a coalition (despite the Conservatives being by far the largest party). Labour retained control with their three tribes of Corbynites, Brownites and few Blairites, in what is a perpetual internal struggle.

To the mine itself. Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, has taken a lot of heat, but it’s clear that what’s really behind the palaver is vacillation among the Labour/LibDems who are running the council. Cumbria County Council has now put forward the proposal only then to decide to re-consider it no fewer than four times. Jenrick has done everything he can to let the council decide, but in the end its vacillation created a national controversy. A dangerous precedent.

Labour weakness and division doesn’t just stop at doing everything possible not to make a decision on bringing 500 really well-paid jobs in Cumbria. Look across the other side of the country and you see it caught up in another culture war with itself in Leeds.

West Yorkshire wants to rival Greater Manchester as the engine room of the North of England. Leeds is back in the premiership, and everyone’s longing for the old rivalry on the pitch and, more generally, some healthy competition across the Pennines.

But Labour politicians locally can’t even agree on whether to expand Leeds Bradford Airport. The Labour-run Council has, eventually, passed a proposal, but the local Labour MPs (more concerned about their own membership than their voters) have gone against it. Hilary Benn and Alex Sobel, amongst others, literally asked the Secretary of State to call in a decision by the local Labour council.

Scratch the surface anywhere in the North and you’ll find Labour in mini-civil wars everywhere. What does this mean for other big projects? The A1(M) upgrade? New train lines? The A66/68/69/74? Are we going to allow vacuous, vacillating, virtue-signalling Labour Councils to kibosh our levelling-up agenda?

Contrast Labour’s approach to Ben Houchen’s in Teesside or Andy Street’s in the West Midlands; pro-enterprise, and willing to work with the Government. Interestingly, Andy Burnham seemed to be too, during his early days of wanting to get stuff done but his rivalry with Sadiq Khan over who will be the next Labour leader has seen him go from pragmatic local leader to disingenuous leadership contender, in lock step with Starmer’s personal poll rating.

What I’m driving at is that for levelling-up to work, we’re going to need to see local authorities and local authority leaders who want it to work.   The sad truth is that many local Labour councils and local bureaucracies don’t want it: they’re scared of it. In County Durham, it would create further upheaval in the system of sinecures that, sadly, local council positions have been for 102 years. They don’t want to risk ‘levelling up’ – they’re happy with a lazy the politics of grievance. After all, it’s served them well for decades.

Meanwhile, when faced with big political calls, the Prime Minister tends to make the right ones. On running for Mayor. On Brexit. On standing for the Conservative leadership in 2019, doing what many said was impossible, and getting Tory MPs to back him. (I remember this ,because when I joined his campaign you could get six to one on him to make the ballot.) On the general election. On the vaccine.

He’s making a big call on the economy now – the big push to level up. This is his big bet on Britain.  To deliver it though we need strong aligned local leadership. Mid-term elections always hammer the party in power, and we’re coming from the 2017 local election high point and a year of Covid. Getting Conservative 2019 voters to come out again is the challenge on which the ability to deliver the agenda now rests. We’ve fifty days to show them it does.

Rama Thirunamachandran: Modern universities and their graduates are a necessity, not a luxury, in a post-Covid Britain

3 Feb

Professor Rama Thirunamachandran is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Canterbury Christ Church University and Chair of MillionPlus. This is a sponsored post by MillionPlus.

Like every sector, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been felt acutely across higher education in 2020, but through the hard work and creativity of those working on and off campus, modern universities have demonstrated compellingly what we bring to the country and the economy – and how we can help build back better in 2021.

Modern universities have supported our hospitals, the social care system and our schools in this period. From student nurses moving to work in the NHS, to ensuring our frontline services have the equipment and support they needed when they needed it most, every university stood up and played its part in the fight against Covid.

Modern universities, so-called because they gained university status after 1992, make up more than half of UK higher education, teaching over a million students each year. We offer flexible provision, catering not just for those looking for a campus experience but also for those commuting to study, seeking to “learn while they earn” and for those employed as degree apprentices by our industry partners. We also reach out to students both young and mature from a very diverse and wide range of backgrounds including from disadvantaged communities in some of the poorest areas in the UK.

However, alongside the fight against Covid, HE continues to face challenges and criticism from commentators and occasionally from MPs. While I accept that universities must always strive to raise their game by improving every aspect of what we do, much of the media narrative is informed by either outdated thinking – or a simple lack of understanding of what higher education is about in the 21st century.

Take the quality of provision, for instance. Barely a week passes without talk from certain quarters of “low quality” provision when the simple fact is that the UK HE system has one of the most comprehensive and admired independent quality assurance systems in the world, one which many countries have sought to replicate.

It is our moral and professional responsibility to maintain high quality courses while weeding out poor practice. We know we need to continually raise our game on the employment outcomes our programmes generate for graduates. We are far from complacent on the task ahead on ensuring that our graduates gain highly skilled jobs in the challenging post-Covid economic landscape. A big shift is needed here – we are determined to deliver value for students and the taxpayer, who also foots some of the bill.

Another stick all-too-frequently used to bash universities is the idea of “low value” courses. In essence, these are courses that produce graduates who don’t earn high enough salaries to meet an arbitrary assessment of “value”. The blunt tool of using graduate salary to assess the idea of value reduces graduates – another word for which is “people”, with ambitions and hopes for themselves and their families – to a number, a vehicle for economic output, an infinitesimal addition in the nation’s GDP.

By this crude metric, arts subjects are deemed low value. Pre-pandemic, the creative industries were worth more than £100 billion per year to the economy and employing two million people. If only arts graduates were fish in UK waters, perhaps some would take a different view of their value. Unfortunately, this has been laid bare in the recent government letter to the OfS proposing funding cuts to the teaching grant for higher cost creative arts courses.

Even more galling, graduates in the very specialties we have come to rely on like never before since the start of this pandemic are also consigned in the “low value” category: nurses; paramedics and other allied health professionals; physiotherapists, teachers and many more. What’s more, the salaries that see them lumped into this unflattering category are set by government.

As we clapped those working on the frontline we demonstrated that value to society cannot simply be understood in terms of stellar earnings alone.

While universities can ensure that a student receives a high quality course and ensure support is available to bolster a student’s journey there are so many factors that make up what a good outcome is for a student and graduate – not least student choice, and with a higher education system of fees based on that very premise, we need to be very careful undercutting it and inadvertently subverting student choice just because some people don’t like what they choose.

As important as delivering quality courses, is where those courses are found. The Government is right to hone-in on the importance of levelling-up across the country, and on the importance of “place” in decision making.

Modern universities serve communities across the UK that are seen as having been “left-behind”, acting as anchors, providing links and co-ordination with local businesses, conducting “real-world” research projects to boost the regional economies, and in educating and training those who live locally. These are the “blue wall” seats and their hinterland. An old model of HE is passing away: a model that was based on inflexible courses, an expectation to live on campus, and programmes with little connection to the workplace.

Modern universities are emphatically not part of that old model. Offering something different, our members have distributed campuses enabling local learning throughout, for instance, the county of Cumbria, and in towns such as Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton. At my university, Canterbury Christ Church, a teaching campus is based in the deprived area of Medway and a new medical school provides opportunities to those who may not be able to travel from, say, Ramsgate, to central London to train to become a doctor.

Another aspect of that new university offer is the integration of further education colleges within universities “families”. Two members of the MillionPlus group, Bolton University and London Southbank, now have FE colleges and academies as integral parts of their university groups, enabling learners to seamlessly progress from vocational or academic qualifications at the school/college to technical or wider HE study at the university. As such, plans to strengthen sub-degree education in the Government’s Skills for Jobs white paper are to be welcomed and worked on.

Modern universities support moves to boost opportunities for those seeking to study in FE, including for the new T Levels, which MillionPlus members have had involvement in crafting.

The narrative that pervades that HE and FE are in competition, or that more people should attend colleges and fewer universities or that funding should be re-directed from one to the other is unhelpful and simply misses the point. There is ample room in the local educational landscape for both, as we each possess distinctive but complementary educational missions.

Britain cannot claim to have truly recovered from the pandemic until every part of the country is fit and firing, with prosperity and opportunity shared more equitably across the country. For this very reason the UK government’s plan, again outlined in its recent Skills for Jobs white paper, to create a flexible entitlement to all levels of Post-18 learning is also to be welcomed.

MillionPlus has long called for greater flexibility in the access to student loans for high quality HE courses and for measures to be put in place to help people progress to, and from, their A level, T Level or BTEC attainment. Modern universities stand ready to drive that effort and are increasingly working with the Government and other parts of the education sector to do just that.

Our universities are not a luxury to afford, nor a punchbag for political rhetoric – we are part of the fabric of communities up and down the country and only by working together can we make the recovery truly a recovery for all.

Robert Largan: Cutting Council Tax would do more to level up than cutting Corporation Tax

18 Jan

Robert Largan is MP for High Peak and a Member of the Levelling Up Taskforce Committee. Onward’s report, Levelling Up the Tax System, is available at this link.

At the last election, in northern constituencies like mine, many people voted Conservative for the first time. They did so for three main reasons: to “get Brexit done”; to stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister; and because they wanted to see their area “levelled up”.

We’ve left the EU with a deal and Corbyn has been consigned to the dustbin of history. In 2024, voters will judge this Government on its successes and failures in levelling up.

So far, the debate on levelling up has focused on spending, particularly on infrastructure and understandably so. There is a desperate need to invest in infrastructure in places like the High Peak, whether that be our roads and railways or our schools and hospitals or even our digital infrastructure. But this spending is only part of the levelling up equation. We also need to look seriously at how our tax system works and whether the burden is spread fairly across the whole country.

That is why the Levelling Up Taskforce along with the think tank Onward have published a new report on Levelling up the tax system.

The report takes a new approach, analysing the impact of different taxes on different parts of the country. For example, taxes such as council tax and VAT fall the hardest on the most deprived regions, while average council tax per head in London is lower than anywhere else in England, despite house prices being much higher.

We often hear about how London generates £1 in every £5 of tax receipts. But this ignores the fact that London generates less tax than any other region as a share of their GDP, partly because it benefits from much higher levels of commuters than other places. If we’re serious about levelling up, we need to reassess this situation.

The report considers which tax changes might have the biggest impact on helping people in the most deprived parts of the country as we recover from a global pandemic.

Because there are lots more Band A properties in poorer regions, cutting Band A council tax by a ninth would save 54 per cent of households in the North East an average of £147 a year, 43 per cent of households in Yorkshire an average of 146 per year, and 41 per cent of households in the North West an average of 148 per year. This would put more money in people’s pockets quickly.

While another reduction in corporation tax would benefit London most, an increase to capital allowances for plant and machinery or industrial buildings would be of far greater benefit to the North, Midlands and Wales where there are far more manufacturing businesses. Such a change would lead to large savings for businesses in places like Cheshire, Derbyshire, the West Midlands, Teesside, East Yorkshire, Northern Lincolnshire and Cumbria where capital spending is highest.

I’m not seeking to write the Chancellor’s budget for him but I hope that this report can open up a new dimension in the levelling up debate and help inform how we make tax and spending decisions in future. At the very least, the regional impact of different tax measures should be a standard part of Treasury analysis.

We won’t be able to level up the whole country if the Government has one of its hands tied behind its back. The full fiscal firepower of the Treasury is needed if we are going to give real change for parts of the country that have been neglected by Westminster for far too long.

Neil O’Brien: Introducing the new Levelling Up Taskforce – and its first report on how we can measure progress

7 Sep

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Were you still up for Penistone? One of joys of election night last December was winning so many seats we’ve not held for decades.

The constituencies we won over in 2019 are quite different from the party’s traditional base, in the deep red bits of the map above. Seats we gained last year don’t just have lower earnings than the seats we held, but earnings five per cent lower than Labour seats. Of the bottom quarter of seats in Great Britain with the lowest earnings, more are now held by us than Labour. Compared to seats we gained, homes in Labour constituencies are a third more expensive.

Many of the places we won have felt neglected for a long time. And led from the front by the Prime Minister, the new Government has committed to “levelling up” poorer places. But what does that really mean? How can we measure if we are succeeding? How can we get the private sector growing faster in these places, making the country stronger overall?

To help the Government answer these questions, I and 40 other Conservative MPs have formed a new Levelling Up Taskforce.

Our first report is out today, looking at how we can measure progress. It also examines what’s been happening in different parts of the UK economy over recent decades.

Income per person in London (before paying taxes and receiving benefits) grew two thirds faster than the rest of the country between 1997 and 2018: it’s now 70 per cent higher in London than the rest of the country, up from 30 per cent higher in 1997.

While the divergence seen since the 90s has been a story of London pulling away from all of the rest of the country, it follows decades in which former industrial areas in the north, midlands, Scotland and Wales fell behind. Between 1977 and 1995 South Yorkshire, Teesside and Merseyside saw GDP per person fall by 20 per cent compared to the national average, and most such areas haven’t caught up that lost ground.

Why does this matter?

It matters, first, because opportunity is linked to the economy. There are fewer opportunities to climb the ladder in poorer places. Not just fewer good jobs, but less opportunity in other ways.

In London, over 45 per cent of poorer pupils who were eligible for free school meals progressed to higher education in 2018/19. Outside London there were 80 local authorities where richer pupils who were not on free school meals were less likely than this to go to university. Overall, more than 60 per cent go to university in places like Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster. But less than a third go places like in Knowsley, Barnsley, Hull, and Thurrock.

It also matters because more balanced economies are stronger overall. In an unbalanced economy, resources like land and infrastructure are overloaded in some places, even while they are underused elsewhere. This might be particularly true where cities have seen population shrinkage, and have surplus infrastructure and land. If there are greater distances between workers and good job opportunities that makes it harder for people to get on: not everyone can (or wants) to move away from family to find a better job.

More balanced is stronger overall, but on a wide range of measures the UK is one of the most geographically unbalanced economies. In Germany 12 per cent of people live in areas where the average income is 10 per cent below the national average, while in the UK 35 per cent do. It is very striking that there is no industrialised country that has a more unbalanced economy than the UK and also a higher income, while all the countries that have a higher income have a more balanced economy.

What are we going to do about it? Well, that’s the question our new group will try to answer.

The answer isn’t any of the traditional Labour ones: pumping public sector jobs into places, or subsidising low wage employment, or trying to hold back successful places: we’re interested in levelling up, not levelling down.

Different things will work in different places.

For example, transport improvements might make a bigger difference for remote areas. The ONS defines certain places as “sparse”: the north of Devon and Cornwall, most of central Wales, Shropshire and Herefordshire, most of Cumbria and the rural north east, along with large parts of North Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and North Norfolk. In these places income levels are 17-18 per cent lower. Even controlling for the qualifications and age of people living there, these sparse areas have income levels between £600-£1,300 a year lower, likely driven by poor connectivity.

In other places, the answers are different. I’ve written before about how the way we spend money on things like R&D, transport and housing is skewed towards already-successful areas, creating a vicious circle. We should change that.

But tax cuts could also play a bigger role in helping poorer areas. There’s actually been convergence between regions at the bottom end of the earnings distribution, driven by things like the National Living Wage, tax cuts for low income workers, and things like Universal Credit, which have reduced the differences between places by levelling up the poorer areas more. In poorer places, more people benefit from these policies.

The reason there are growing gaps between areas overall is divergence higher up the income scale.
Looking at the gap between earnings for full-time workers in London and the North East, the pay gap shrank for the bottom 30 per cent of workers, but grew for those higher up. For those at the 10th percentile the pay gap between the two places shrank from 32 per cent to 20 per cent. But for richer folks at the 90th percentile, it grew from 62 per cent to 88 per cent.

So how do we get more good, high-paying jobs into poorer areas? There are a million different specific opportunities, but one that’s relevant in a lot of Red Wall seats is advanced manufacturing.

Over recent decades, Chancellors have tended to cut capital allowances (a tax break for investment) in order to lower the headline rate of corporation tax. I’m not sure that was a good idea: Britain has a lower rate of fixed capital investment than competitors and our tax treatment of investment is stingy. But either way, this change has had a pronounced regional impact: it favours services over manufacturing, so helps some areas more than others.

One way to blast our way through the current economic turmoil would be to get businesses investing again by turning capital allowances right up (“full expensing” in the jargon). That would be particularly likely to help poorer areas. Indeed, when we have tried this in a targeted way before it worked.

Government should think more about how tax and spending decisions can help us level up. It should produce geographical analysis of all budgets and fiscal events, setting out the different impact that tax and spending changes will have on different areas. The Treasury’s Labour Markets and Distributional Analysis unit should have geographical analysis added to its remit.

This whole agenda is exciting. But a lot of people are cynical, because they heard New Labour talk the talk – but not deliver. We’ve got to deliver. So let’s hold ourselves to account, and set ourselves some ambitious goals.

Let’s get earnings growing faster than before in poorer areas. Let’s get unemployment down in the places it’s worst. They say that “what gets measured gets managed.” So let’s “measure up” our progress on levelling up.