For decades, the economic view of successive governments has been London-centric, with public funds and infrastructure projects all flowing towards the nation’s capital and urban areas. Despite this, each has made attempts to “level up” the country – it’s just that this government has put a definitive name on the policy, even renaming one of its departments to that effect. As Michael Gove, the UK’s first Levelling Up Secretary, acknowledged: “While talent is spread equally across the United Kingdom, opportunity is not.”
But what do we mean by “levelling up”? Achieving levelling up can be interpreted as sustainably rectifying the historical imbalance in our country’s growth, educational and living standards to improve the lives of everyone. This imbalance, which exists not just geographically but also between our cities, towns, and rural areas, is in no one’s interest.
Prime ministers of all parties have worked to support neglected regions for at least 100 years. Michael Heseltine led regeneration schemes in the 1980s and 1990s that made him a household name, and New Labour established large public sector bodies in 1999 to drive growth in every region. I am confident that the present government is not merely redressing old policies, but while northern cities and big towns are a big focus, the needs of smaller towns, villages and associated rural areas cannot be ignored.
Last month, I proposed and led a debate on support for rural communities in Cumbria, including my constituency of Penrith and the Border, England’s largest constituency by land mass. In a speech covering several areas of concern to my constituents, I discussed connectivity challenges, both physical and virtual, such as rural bus routes and broadband and mobile phone signal, as well as the need for continued centralised support to support the hospitality, tourism and farming sectors that are part of the lifeblood of these areas.
I am also pushing the government to allow parish councils to meet in virtual or hybrid formats moving forward. The pandemic has been challenging in many ways, but it proved that local democracy can function within such a system. Democracy is for all, and we should continue to utilise modern technology to ensure participation is as wide as possible.
Levelling up also means creating new opportunities for people to get on the housing ladder. Many properties in Cumbria are now used as second homes, pushing local people out of our area and inflating house prices. We need to address this issue head on.
Last but by no means least, levelling up in its widest sense must include public services like healthcare, including introducing improvements across various health specialities. Mental health must be granted the same parity of esteem and attention as physical health. Our rural areas feel this acutely, with geographical isolation, unique pressures in industries like farming, and shock events such as floods and animal disease causing acute stress.
As a member on the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, I have triggered an inquiry into rural mental health to examine these issues and make recommendations to central government to improve psychiatric provisions in rural areas.
I urge the government to address these issues at a cross-government level to support the communities that we live in and we love. Cumbria can no longer be treated as the “end of the line” when it comes to allocation of funding and involvement in projects. We must ensure that rural voices are heard loud and clear down in Westminster and Whitehall.