A dead letter

Without local power, the government’s dreamy evocation of Medici Florence for its levelling-up agenda is a mess of gimmicks and political chicanery

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There are many breathtaking views in the North but fewer better than that over Morecambe Bay – the glimmering sunset on the retreating tide and the outline of the Lakeland peaks above Grange-over-Sands. But turn 180 degrees and the view isn’t as pleasant, as viewers of ITV’s hit cop show The Bay may agree.

Look to your right from the Stone Jetty and the stunning art deco edifice of the classy Midland Hotel and you’ll see Morecambe’s West End, a ward with some of the country’s highest measures of poverty – or in government language, indices of deprivation – unemployment, drug use and crime. The seaside town they forgot to close down, as Morrissey famously sang.

The former holiday resort also has a Conservative MP. It’s a red wall town, an early adopter of the trend for favouring blunt Tories over the Labour alternative.

Morecambe is a coastal community desperately in need of investment and ideas. It’s the kind of place that the Levelling Up the United Kingdom strategy launched by Michael Gove the week before last should be all about, with his new 12 new priorities (or “missions”) to unleash “opportunity, prosperity and pride in places where, for too long, it has been held back”.

Only a year ago Rishi Sunak published Build Back Better, which said many of the same things

Turn left outside the Midland and there’s a vacant site where there was once an outside lido and a modest plastic dome, which housed entertainment and events, a miniscule forerunner of London’s purposeless equivalent. Through the decade after the millennium, towns like Morecambe received funding for cultural projects as a means of sparking “regeneration”, including Doncaster’s Earth Centre, Rotherham’s Magna, Sunderland’s National Glass Centre and The Public arts venue in West Bromwich. If it weren’t for Iraq, New Labour’s legacy would amount to “a dome in every town”.

Morecambe got a Midland Hotel rebuilt by hip Manchester developers Urban Splash, which was meant to trigger a rebirth and the kind of pride Gove spoke about, to make it the Brighton of the North. But it wasn’t just willed into existence. As one of the developers said to me at the time: “It’s amazing what you can do with creativity, imagination, and £25 million from the Northwest Regional Development Agency.”

But since that adjacent site was turned down for development, and the financial crisis hit, Morecambe has been in want of a big idea, a chance of reinvention. It has no cinema or theatre. The train station no longer terminates at the Promenade but further into the town in an expanse of car parks and declining retail. The Midland was bought by experienced operator English Lakes Hotels, which has done well, while Morecambe has not.

In January Lancaster City Council planners gave planning permission for Eden North, the northern outpost of the famous eco-tourism park in Cornwall, to be situated on that vacant site next to the Midland. Its business case says it could attract around one million visitors a year, directly employ more than 400 people, bring in additional visitor spend of more than £200 million a year, and support an additional 1,500 jobs. It could trigger a wave of additional attractions and amenities, to the point when the Lancashire town might actually call itself a resort again. Caroline Jackson, leader of Lancaster City Council, calls it “the most significant project in our district for a generation”.

But in the shambolic parliamentary debate that followed Gove’s Levelling Up White Paper launch statement, when a long parade of MPs pleaded with the minister to visit and back their local project, among them was Morecambe MP David Morris, who asked when the required £75 million of funding would be forthcoming for Eden North.

Gove could give no commitment other than platitudes to “get it over the line” and nor could Boris Johnson a week later when asked the same question as he was hanging out of a tram in the hard hat and hi-vis jacket beloved of politicians touring the North. As one former senior civil servant I spoke to said, Eden North should be “a quick win” for the government but the tensions between government departments and the Treasury make any rhetoric in support of it meaningless.

In one anecdote, we have the problem with the government’s levelling up aspirations. The Levelling Up White Paper opens with an “essay” by former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane that references Medici Florence, before padding it with a history of cities from Jericho and Rome onwards, some of which is copied from Wikipedia, sometimes twice.

Medici Florence was a 15th century period of self-governing city states with new banks, arts, innovation and transformative inventions. “Levelling up” as a term comes from computer and video games, when a player gets better tools and weapons to compete at the next level. All this might be why people find it so difficult to describe levelling up when TV news journalists stop them in the street for an instant reaction.

As well as florid historical fancies, the 332-page paper is dense with economic theory. It lists myriad funds. They include Brownfield, UK Shared Prosperity, Future High Streets, Coastal Communities and, inevitably, a Levelling Up Fund – some of which are intended to replace funds from the European Union after Brexit. But there’s scant evidence that they are effective at what they were set up to do.

But the reality of everyday life, or life chances, is less Medici and more Morecambe. Or Middlesbrough, Manchester or, as I’ll explain, Marple. Local people aren’t given the opportunity to really express what they think about where they live.

With appalling timing, the report was launched just as the National Audit Office delivered its damning verdict on the performance of the very projects meant to demonstrate the government’s track record. The summary said: “The Department for Levelling Up therefore lacks evidence on whether the billions of pounds of public funding it has awarded to local bodies in the past for supporting local growth have had the impact intended. And it has wasted opportunities to learn which initiatives and interventions are most effective.”

Three uncomfortable truths sit at the heart of the story of Britain’s twin track economic development and social decline.

Firstly, that much of this has been attempted before, under initiatives led by reforming Tories like Michael Heseltine, then New Labour’s whole new industry of urban regeneration, led for the most part by the regional development agencies. These were abolished in the “bonfire of the quangos” by the coalition government in favour of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine. These then slid out of fashion in favour of Theresa May’s and her minister Greg Clark’s Industrial Strategy, from which eight out of the 12 targets in the Levelling Up White Paper were cut and pasted. And only a year ago, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak published Build Back Better: Our Plan for Growth, which said many of the same things.

Second, the 2 trillion euro investment in Eastern Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 still hasn’t completely closed the gap between former communist East and capitalist West, but what success there was at least framed as a national mission that spanned changes of government and Chancellors, extending initiatives like the Fraunhofer clusters of industrial excellence.

Kathrin Enenkel, a researcher at the Centre for Cities think tank, says the sheer amount of money that the German federal government spent, and the timescale, showed a commitment that lasted longer than a single parliamentary term or a single party’s political agenda. The key programme, Aufbau Ost (“Rebuilding East Germany”), was launched with the ambition of only ending once it had successfully created equal living conditions. “It was designed to outlast changes in the political composition of the federal government,” she says.

Contrast that with the short-term, sporadic approach of successive UK governments. As veteran business journalist David Thame wrote in the property publication Place North West: “The truth is that urban regeneration is mostly political theatre – and because it is invariably an effort to get water to run uphill, pretty much doomed to failure. After 30 years of multi-billion pound urban regeneration we all ought to be living in paradise – and yet we are not.” Some schemes work and some locations get wealthier, “but like your grandad, who smoked 80 a day and lived to be 105, the exceptions do not disprove the rule”.

Finally, many of the symptoms for which levelling up is a cure – poor health outcomes, decline in parks and public services, and crime – were directly caused by the savage cuts to public sector spending in the austerity years under Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Gove.

Levelling up feels gimmicky, repetitive yet random, but without the money to have genuine impact, let alone make up for the government’s own cuts. Nor has there been a Brexit dividend – EU funds to the regions have ended but have not been replaced. Gove was wide open to the challenge from his shadow minister, the Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, who said: “For every £13 they’ve taken off us they’ve given just £1 back. We get a partial refund and they expect us to be grateful. It’s not their money, it’s ours, and we want it back.”

David Cameron’s big idea was the Big Society, which was supposed to encourage community groups to drive change and improvements from the bottom up. This kind of initiative is absent from the White Paper. It does contain devolution proposals – a mayor for everywhere that wants one – but will they have real powers and won’t they be forced into more competitive bidding? Real fiscal devolution, including reform of taxes like business rates, still seems a long way off, leaving mayors short of the powers their equivalents in Europe and North America take for granted.

Middlesbrough should be the essence of the Tory strategy for levelling up and the stage on which the “political theatre” of regeneration takes place. As the largest of the quintet of boroughs that make up the Tees Valley Combined Authority area, Middlesbrough’s electorate is seeing the rewards of electing a Conservative mayor, Ben Houchen, who was comfortably re-elected in 2021 and is cited lovingly on the first page of the Levelling Up White Paper as “inspirational”.

Treasury jobs have moved to nearby Darlington, support has been showered on the reclamation and redevelopment of the enormous former SSI steel works site in Redcar, nine miles away. Expect Middlesbrough to be granted city status in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee announcement.

Eden Project North (Grimshaw Architects)

Walking around the centre with Kevin Parkes, Middlesbrough Council’s former executive director of regeneration, you can see that an enormous amount has been done in his 17 years in the job. A vocational university, the University of Teesside, has boosted the public sector, and the town is the home to a new challenger bank, GB Bank.

But all parts of Tees Valley have suffered deprivation for generations. The area has a significant legacy of structural problems: huge numbers of low demand housing; poor public transport (Middlesbrough to Newcastle by train takes an hour and 20 minutes to travel 40 miles); high unemployment; decaying town centres; poor secondary education attainment.

Parkes says the needs of Teesside are not going to be resolved through one or two strategic “projects”. “What is needed is a cross-party, long-term – 25-years plus – properly financed commitment to Teesside. Government needs to spend less time obsessing on the process and more about a clear strategy for the future of the area.”

The third M on our travels – Manchester – always does well out of competing for funding – until the government decides the mayor, Andy Burnham, is getting scarily popular and so Leeds gets to be the new home for Channel 4.

Innovation Greater Manchester was hailed in the White Paper as the example of a technology-led strategy that brings together all the new inventions – graphene, hydrogen fuel cells and cyber security – to be funded, backed and housed in parts of the city that have a few tax breaks and fewer planning regulations. It has a price tag attached to it of £100 million, which Andy Burnham gratefully acknowledged as “money that we will be able to use to bolster research development”.

But it barely scratches the surface of the difference between research income from the so-called golden triangle of Oxford, London and Cambridge and what goes on along Manchester’s Oxford Road corridor. Nicola Headlam, chief economist and head of public sector at consultancy Red Flag Alert and the former head of the government’s Northern Powerhouse, says: “Put bluntly, an innovation accelerator in Manchester might help ‘turbocharge’ the growth of individual firms, but this isn’t going to create the benefits needed to level up a regional economy that has lagged behind London and the South East for decades, and which has been hammered by Covid-19.”

Then finally, to end this journey – Marple, a suburb of Stockport, 12 miles from Manchester by train and four miles by road from the town hall where its residents send their council tax.

I’ve cited Marple because it’s where I live. It’s a modest example, but it’s how places get talked about, because of the imbalance of power towards those with a voice, as I have here.

The White Paper talks of the loss of community pride when key amenities decline or close, how that builds a cycle of disappointment and loss of hope. Marple has lost a swimming pool, condemned and left empty for four years. A public consultation has shown support for a new site for it, simultaneously rehousing the local library, the police station, an NHS centre and a senior citizens hall.

What didn’t do Marple any favours with government, possibly, was the recent high profile of the local Conservative MP, William Wragg, and his allegations of blackmail against government whips. The new leisure centre was a project he championed, and was turned down for levelling up funds.

The government will deny it, of course. But even if the case Marple presented wasn’t up to scratch, the amount of time, effort and resource that goes into putting a proposal together, to go cap in hand to a system that seems so muddled, so random and so bent towards the political interests of the government, is completely unstrategic. Even critics on the right from the Centre for Policy Studies think tank blast this “pick and mix statism” of electoral gimmicks and pork-barrel politicking. Local government officers spend evenings and weekends pulling together bids and applications for pots of funding, but they do so on terms dictated by Whitehall, not respecting their own experiences of the communities they live much closer to.

It screams of the lack of local power over decisions that make local sense – just as it does in Morecambe for Eden, and with the same paralysed frustration.

Main photo: Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen shows the Treasury secretary, Helen Whately, around Teesside (Jason Brown/Shutterstock)

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