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Fragmented leadership holding the North East back – report

Academics studying North East levelling up are calling for a regional summit to assess the levelling up agenda, resolve the devolution impasse and deal with the fragmented and confused leadership which they say is holding the region back.

‘A resolution of the devolution deal and city region governance is required for the North East region to ensure levelling up plans can be better coordinated’, say Cameron Forbes and Professors Joyce Liddle  and John Shutt of Northumbria University.

They want to see collaboration between combined authorities, local authorities, health trusts, cross boundary organisations like Nexus (the Tyne & Wear public transport executive), the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) and quangos such as the Newcastle Gateshead initiative and the regional purchasing organisation NEPO.

‘There is still too much fragmentation, confusion and lack of strategic leadership governance which is holding the region back’, say the authors in a report on North East levelling up published by Newcastle Business School, part of Northumbria University.

In an assessment of what has been achieved in the past three years, since levelling up formed an important part of the Conservative Party’s 2019 election campaign, they conclude that only one of the government’s 12 missions set out in a Levelling Up White Paper in February this year and which it aimed to fulfil by 2030, is on track.

The target for reducing crime in the region, they say, may be seen to be on track but is unambitious.

Six other targets are off-track in the region – income, public transport, digital connectivity, training & skills, well-being and devolution.

In the cases of the other five targets – increased research & development, primary education, healthy life expectancy, pride in place and housing – it is too early to say.

The report’s authors place blame for lack of progress in the North East on both the national government and the region’s local government.

Levelling up was the flagship policy of the Boris Johnson Conservative government, with Liz Truss declaring a continued commitment to the plan, they write. Johnson promised levelling up to deliver a new policy agenda and to address the north-south divide, to focus on the deep-seated inequalities in regions like the North-East. But in 2022, it is still not clear what ‘levelling up’ means and what it is achieving, write the authors.

There is a major problem with capacity in local government and capability in central government, according to the report. Furthermore, there is too little regional and local evaluation of what is being achieved – a gap which the report aims to help fill. Each sub-region needs a clearer plan and framework to 2030 and to clarify the priorities in each city-region, local authority and county area.

The report’s recommendations include a regional summit and major review in 2023 and new actions to ensure the fulfilment of the levelling up promise within the region. These would include action in areas such as health, net zero, inclusive growth and learning.

The report calls for stronger collaboration between stakeholders and organisations across the city region. More detailed debate, it says, is required of key larger projects which can make a real difference. One suggestion is an all-party parliamentary group to examine central government spending and plans for the region.

‘There is a serious problem’ write the authors, ‘with short-termism and fragmentation and policy shifts and drift. We detect a serious lack of discussion and evaluation of programmes for the North-East region and specifically the north-south divide and which programmes are working or not.’

*Levelling Up in the North East Region: What has been achieved in the last three years? An Assessment. By Cameron Forbes, Professor Joyce Liddle and Professor John Shutt. Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University.