Chamber sets out priorities for ‘levelling up’ plan for the North

Suzanne Caldwell
X The Business Desk

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Cumbria Chamber of Commerce has set out what it sees as clear priorities if the Government is to successfully deliver its plans to ‘level up’ the Northern regions.

It believes a coherent long-term plan by the Government, with measurable goals and a locally adapted strategy is essential if the North of England is to utilise a real and serious levelling up programme.

The chamber attended the Parliamentary recent launch of the Plan for the North, and believes the report by professors Steve Fothergill and Tony Gore of Sheffield Hallam University highlights the lack of real investment going into the region.

The study shows the scale of the uphill challenge required to deliver on the Government’s commitment to levelling up the North of England, and the practical steps required to unleash the region’s full potential.

It says what needs to happen is:

  • Devolved powers as well as added investment from the Government as part of a coherent long term plan with measurable goals and a locally adapted strategy for each county and unitary authority area, including Cumbria and across all Northern areas
  • A substantial diversion of government R&D spending to the North. There needs to be more emphasis on practical support for product development and the improvement of production processes across the wide range of industries that make up the bulk of the regional economy
  • Action across a broad front. Investment in rail infrastructure is critical, and needs to be used alongside road, bus services and active travel to improve connectivity, particularly within the North itself. A requirement for more investment in a much wider range of local improvements
  • More of a focus on less prosperous places, for example full fibre broadband across the whole of the North. Towns and smaller communities in Cumbria, such as Alston or Millom, should not be left behind, as has so often been the case with digital connectivity
  • Long term, reliable and genuinely transformative spending, either through existing or new initiatives
  • Support for business, education, skills and public services from the Government is vital
  • Less of a reliance on competitive bidding for existing government funding, where Northern areas are fighting against others in the South of England, the devolved nations and others

Suzanne Caldwell, managing director of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “There is no one ‘magic button’ to deliver levelling up for the North of England. It’s quite clear that action is required across a broad front.

“Last week’s discussion, and the document itself, highlight some glaring problems and serious window dressing by the Government in recent years, rather than real positive changes for both businesses and wider communities alike.

“In reality, the Government’s proposed Shared Prosperity Fund is worth almost exactly what the UK received from the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund.

“The Levelling Up Fund is not ‘new money’ but a successor to the Local Growth Fund which similarly allocated competitive bidding between 2014 and 2020. Yet the Levelling Up Fund is worth £0.5bn less over a lifetime, so represents a reduction in spending to its predecessor.”

More than 40 key representatives, including the chamber’s business engagement manager, Luke Jarmyn, alongside MPs, council leaders, mayors, peers, academics and business figures from across the region were brought together to discuss the new research.

The report is an independent, professional assessment by the professors at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research of Sheffield Hallam University.

The plan details the scale of the challenge and practical steps needed to unleash the North’s full potential and has been sent to the Prime Minister with the backing of more than 40 council leaders and metro mayors.

Suzanne added: “Levelling up does need a long term commitment as it isn’t easy and the North’s prosperity has lagged behind for decades, largely beyond the control of key stakeholders in the North.

“Businesses and communities need to know that the Government is focused on them through providing much needed investment. Crucially, we’re hampered in attracting new businesses and entrepreneurs to Cumbria without public transport seeing consistent investment.

“What we’re targeting, like other interested parties, is the much awaited Levelling Up White Paper and the Spending Review later this year where we will get a clearer picture of the Government’s priorities.”