A new competitor for the North East in the levelling-up stakes has entered the field in the shape of the ‘Eastern Powerhouse’ (EP). And while it will not necessarily be challenging for any of the regional funding that might otherwise come to the North East it will certainly be pressing for a share of the government’s attention and offering a different approach that ministers might prefer.
The EP, launched yesterday, covers an area including Norfolk, Suffolk, north Essex, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Bedfordshire, according to a report in the East Anglian Daily Times (EADT).
It is a business-led organisation chaired by James Palmer, Conservative mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough from 2017 until his defeat by Labour in 2021. He describes himself as: ‘Consultant. Experienced in local government, project delivery, transport solutions, government relations, adult education and skills.’
The EP would not be a funding body and would not seek funds from government but it would be independent, funded by its members, according to Palmer.
He told the EADT: ‘The aim is to promote the East of England as a place for investment and business development.’
He said: ‘In the last Budget, the north of England was mentioned 18 times but the East wasn’t mentioned at all.’ He added: “Our job is to influence government policy to benefit the economy of the East of England.’
The EP would make the case for investment in the area to boost economic growth, improve transport and infrastructure and raise skills and attract and support the development of businesses.
According to Paul Waugh, writing in the i newspaper, the EP is backed by every Conservative MP in the East of England and seeks to put the region on the national political agenda in the same way as the Northern Powerhouse.
Its co-founder, he reports, is Phillip Blond, founder and director of the ResPublica think tank and author of ‘Red Tory’, a book which Waugh says has been enormously influential in the Johnson administration.
If ever there was an area crying out for a regional approach, Blond told Waugh, it was the East of England. It had lots of very successful growing cities near London, but localised politics led to fratricide.
The EP is probably pushing at open door when it seeks government attention and support for its area. This website has long been pointing out that the Conservative Manifesto pledge to level up every part of the country implied that deprived places everywhere, not just in regions like the North East traditionally perceived as lagging, should be levelled up.
Labour’s Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, Lisa Nandy, seemed to accept that point in her speech to a recent conference in Newcastle, when she referred to losers in every region.
And though the Eastern region has unemployment at only 3.1% – below the national average, according to figures published yesterday by the Office for National Statistics – it also has places like Great Yarmouth often cited as an example of run-down coastal towns in need to levelling up.
The point of the EP seems to be to take the argument a step further by seeking help not just for lagging places wherever they may be but for thriving ones near London to help them do even better than they are already by providing regional co-ordination for squabbling local towns and cities.
It’s an odd situation. On one hand the localism introduced by the Coalition government in 2010 in place of the previous Labour regionalism has become the accepted norm, now even by Labour. But at the same moment the need for a regional body to co-ordinate fratricidal localities – a phenomenon familiar in the North East – has been recognised by the Tories.
The approach of the EP will provide an instructive contrast with that of North East leaders. While James Palmer’s pledge that the EP would not seek public funds may not stand the test of time, nor does the North East ignore the importance of private investment. But the difference in emphasis of the two regions between government funding and the private sector is stark, reflecting their two very different economic and, perhaps still more important, their political situations.
The fear among the North East’s predominantly Labour leaders must be that the government will decide it cannot afford the funding they want to level up the region’s economy, public services and living standards, and prefer to support the EP’s Tory approach of relying on private investment instead. Already, following last month’s publication of the Levelling Up White Paper, it is clear that funds are being doled out in relatively small amounts for civic improvements and the government is counting on the enhancement of local pride to persuade people they are being levelled up.
Ministers will be strengthened in this view by Conservative MPs like Steve Baker, who according to Waugh, is ‘needling’ the government on levelling up. His point, says Waugh, is that ‘the Exchequer cannot simply spend its way to total regional equality’. It is a point that will go down better in Cambridge than in Consett.
Politicians of all parties and in all parts of the country should bear in mind that levelling up is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Given a fair distribution of funding – an important qualification – a more prosperous Eastern region does not have to be at the expense of a poorer North East.