North East Devolution and Levelling Up

A good plan for levelling up

A new eight-point plan to level up the north is published today by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP), and it bears striking similarities to the ideas that have been developing on this website over the past year – or at least contains little we would disagree with.

Top of the list of improvements needed, according to the NPP – which claims to be the leading voice of business and civic leaders across the north and is chaired by the former Chancellor George Osborne – is education.

This site agrees, and a year ago we listed spending per head of population on education and the percentage of the population aged 16-64 with NVQ4 and above as two of the measures on a checklist of progress against which the success of levelling up the North East would be judged.

Second on the list is devolution, the very purpose – alongside levelling up – for which this site was set up. What is more, the NPP calls for devolution either in the form of metro mayors or county deals – ten months after this site was alone in speculating about a possible county deal for Durham.

Third on the NPP’s list is industrial policy. As it says: ‘There is a real opportunity to create the next generation of jobs while taking advantage of the north’s unique expertise and economic assets to lead our transition to net zero. This should focus around the opportunity for carbon capture use and storage (CCUS), hydrogen and small modular reactors (SMRs)’.

This is the same idea, though with some differences of detail, as that proposed here on August 19 that the green industrial revolution offered the first cause for optimism about the North East economy in nearly six decades.

This is closely tied to the NPP’s fourth point which is innovation, focused on advanced manufacturing and materials, energy, health innovation and digital, in all of which which the North East is strong.

Fifth on the NPP list is skills, which is closely related to education. Control over the adult education budget, which has already been handed over from Whitehall to the Tees Valley and North of Tyne combined authorities, is one of the reasons this site has been urging the four south of Tyne councils to agree to a devolution deal.

Sixth on the list is health: the NPP is calling for locally-led integrated health and care services. Health is not an issue on which either this site or the North East devolution debate have focused much attention (the Covid emergency aside), though life expectancy is one of the measures on the checklist on which we believe the success of levelling up should be measured.

However, in an early initiative under its proposed, but aborted, devolution deal, the North East Combined Authority co-operated with local NHS organisations to set up the North East Commission for Health and Social Care Integration. The commission investigated the health and wellbeing gap between the North East and the rest of the UK and health inequalities within the area. Though eventually devolution did not proceed at that time, the commission completed its work in 2016 and according to its chair its recommendations could have been implemented through existing structures. Someone who took a close interest told this author at the time that nothing was done and it was a wasted opportunity.

Following the outrage from northern leaders that greeted publication of the government’s Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) in the autumn, it was inevitable that transport would appear on the NPP’s list. It is only surprising that it as low down as seventh.

This seems to suggest that the NPP has reconciled itself to the scrapping of the high-speed rail line between Birmingham and Leeds (HS2b) and the prioritisation of local transport improvements instead, as this site recommended on November 19. NPP is still pressing for the full upgrading of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) between Manchester and Leeds, however.

It says: ‘Investment in buses and mass transit is also critical – but this should be delivered alongside a new rail line across the Pennines, not as a consolation prize’.

The NPP’s eighth and final point is also essentially about transport, but this time specifically about local transport linking surrounding towns to their big-city neighbours. The NPP says: ‘Towns are helped – not hindered – by links to nearby cities. Levelling up northern towns must focus on helping local people access well-paid, skilled jobs in order to drive up wages and productivity, primarily through devolution to metro mayors to invest in transport infrastructure, education and skills, as well as innovation’.

That is exactly why this site supports the Northumberland Line, already going ahead to link Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth to the Tyne & Wear Metro and urges the prioritisation of the reopening of the Leamside Line, Stillington Line and Weardale Railway in County Durham rather than futile attempts to bring high-speed trains to Darlington and Newcastle. We also prioritise the £800m North East bus service improvement plan, which is threatened by the lack of a devolution deal combining councils north and south of the Tyne.

All in all the NPP’s is is a good plan for levelling up the North East, and the rest of the north, which this site is happy to support. There are no costings, though.