MPs spent yesterday afternoon debating the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, a measure of profound importance for the North East. They devoted more than five hours to the topic, and the end of which the Bill was given an unopposed second reading.
And what did the North East’s MPs have to say on behalf of the region during this long and important debate? Hardly anything at all.
Of 242 speeches by MPs from all parts of the country, only one was from a North East representative: Ian Lavery, MP for Wansbeck who, like other back-benchers was allocated four minutes. No other MP from the region, whether Conservative or Labour, spoke.
Labour MPs seem to have been particularly noticeable by the absence, if Michael Gove, Levelling Up Secretary, was correct:
‘As I look at the Benches behind me’ he said, ‘I find it striking that in this debate on this piece of legislation, which is about strengthening local government and rebalancing our economy, the Conservative Benches are thronged with advocates for levelling up, whereas on the Labour Benches there are one or two heroic figures—such as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who are genuine tribunes of the people—but otherwise there is a dearth, an absence and a vacuum.’
‘Talking of dearths, absences and vacuums’ added Mr Govem.ay I commend to the Labour Front Benchers the speech given by Lord Mandelson today in Durham—a city with which I think the Leader of the Opposition is familiar—in which he points out that Labour has still not moved beyond the primary colours stage when it comes to fleshing out its own policy? In contrast to our levelling-up White Paper and our detailed legislation, Lord Mandelson says that Labour is still at the primary stage of policy development, but I think it is probably at the kindergarten stage.’
In his speech, Ian Lavery said: ‘I am going to ask the question, “What does levelling up actually mean?” My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) asked the same question, and people in our communities have not got a clue what this means.
‘In my view, levelling up should be about people. It should be about individuals and families. We should be addressing issues in the left-behind communities, which were once proud and thriving but which have been left behind for an awful long time. It is fair to say that people believe that levelling up is purely political rhetoric—a political narrative and a political slogan—that does not mention them. Levelling up should be about tackling child poverty, pensioner poverty, fuel poverty and food bank reliance. It should be about employment opportunities, educational opportunities, health outcomes and life expectancy. It should not just be about shiny new one-off projects in towns that need a bit of a polish.
‘I take this opportunity to invite the Secretary of State to visit me in my constituency and witness for himself the desperate need for some sort of levelling up finance. I want him to come to Northumberland and visit Ashington and Bedlington to see the holes in the centre of those wonderful towns, which are desperate for investment but have not had any for many years. I want him to walk through the streets of Bedlington and listen to the constituents who have been pleading for leisure facilities for many, many years but have not been given any. I want to take him to the Hirst area of Ashington to see the conditions that some of its residents live in, which many people would not tolerate. They do not even have a suitable refuse collection, so there are bin liners on the streets, seagulls the size of jumbo jets, and rats right across where they live. We need investment and support for these held back communities.
‘I want to take the Secretary of State to Newbiggin, Morpeth, Choppington and Sleekburn, but we would need to make sure that the buses were on time, because we have not got a suitable bus service. In many of the places I have mentioned, people have to get the bus at 10 o’clock in the morning and return to the community by 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, because otherwise the bus service is not there to assist.
‘I want the Secretary of State—I will call him my right hon. Friend—to come and see how people live in my constituency, because this is an extremely serious issue. It is time we used the leaps forward in modern technology and connectivity to radically rethink Whitehall. We need to make it a priority to create jobs in the places I have mentioned—real, good, solid employment opportunities with decent wages and terms and conditions, and trade union recognition. We need to stop the rhetoric and focus on reality. I say to the Secretary of State, “Come along and join me. I am sure you will enjoy it.’
Other North East MPs, if they have an interest in levelling up, will have another chance to speak on the Bill in committee and at third reading.