Levelling Up Checklist
Monitoring the progress of levelling up
Levelling Up Checklist
Updated on 18 April 2022
This website will monitor the North East’s performance against the range of criteria affecting the levelling up of the region discussed below – jobs, productivity, education, transport, health and well-being. Some of these are dependent on government support; some, such as skills and transport, would benefit from local councillors agreeing to a new devolution deal for the region. The final criterion, well-being, is subjective. For other more comprehensive sources of monitoring see the bottom of this section.
Unemployment in the North East has been above the national average for decades, and the statistics show that that remains the case today. The latest annual figures for January-December 2021 from Nomis, the official labour market statistics, show the regional rate, including Tees Valley, to be 6.0% compared with the rate for England of 4.5%. The region stays stubbornly at the top of the unemployment league table 12 years after the Coalition Government replaced Labour’s regional approach, with nine regional development agencies, with a localist approach of 38 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). It is eight years since LEPs adopted ten-year strategic economic plans (SEPs) in the latest bid to close the gap – until, that is, the Levelling Up White Paper was published on February 2, 2022. The White Paper set a target date of 2030 to level up the UK, but the persistence of the North East’s unemployment problem shows what a tough task it will be.
Nor have the different approaches in different parts of the region made much difference so far. Tees Valley agreed a devolution deal in 2016 and since 2017, under a bullish, high-profile and highly politicised Tory mayor has enjoyed favourable treatment from the Conservative government. The North East rejected devolution in 2016 and split along the line of the Tyne, with a deal north of the river but no deal to the south. In as far as its economy has any joint direction at all, it is administered – one can hardly say led – by a competent but almost invisible business-led technocracy, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP), in which local politicians take little interest. Yet unemployment in the two areas continues to follow roughly the same track.
This website places hope for the future in the green industrial revolution, with developments such as batteries and battery-powered vehicles, wind power and hydrogen energy taking place on sites from Blyth to the Tees, as well as in other sectors where the region is strong, such as advanced manufacturing, life sciences and digital.. But it will be years before the full benefits of these are felt in the regional labour market. The number of people employed in the energy sector in the NELEP area for example, peaked at 32,000 in 2019, before the pandemic, but then fell to 23,000.
Most people, including the media – certainly in the North East – tend to look first at the unemployment figures as a measure of the health of the regional economy. This is understandable: unemployment is a concept of which many have direct experience and those who do not often have good reason to fear. But economists also look at productivity. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Kruger once famously said that productivity is not everything but in the long run it is almost everything.
The measure usually used is gross value added (GVA), which the Office for National Statistics (ONS) describes as ‘ a measure of the increase in the value of the economy due to the production of goods and services’. While GVA per head can be a useful way of comparing regions of different size, comparisons can be affected by commuting flows into or out of the region, says the ONS, So the figures should be used with caution, it warns.
The North East’s share of the UK’s GVA has been well below the UK average for more than 20 years as the chart below shows. In 1998, the earliest date for which this dataset is available, it was 74.8% of the average; in 2019 (latest available) it was 70.7%. But the story has not quite been one of steady decline. The North East index (UK = 100) rose under One North East, the regional development agency (RDA), reaching a high point of 77.9 in 2004. Improvements were slight and sporadic but nevertheless demonstrate that decline is not inevitable. The index has however been falling almost steadily since 2010, with just a slight, brief improvement in 2015.
Source: Office for National Statistics
One way to get more people into better jobs and raise productivity is to improve the educational qualifications and skills of the population. It is the opinion of this website that raising the education and skills of its people is the single most important step the North East needs to take if it is to lift itself from its status as a lagging, left-behind region. Education levels in the North East are rising but not as fast as elsewhere, with the result that the region is falling further behind. In 2014 the proportion of people aged 16-64 in England with NVQ4 or above was 35.7% and in the North East 28.4% – a gap of 7.3%. By 2021 the respective figures had risen to 43.1% and 34.4% – a gap of 8.7%. There is one big step the North East could take narrow this gap: devolution for the entire region would almost certainly bring with it control of the adult education budget, as is already the case in North of Tyne and Tees Valley. That is one reason this site is monitoring the North East’s opaque and snails-pace progress to a comprehensive devolution deal as closely as it can.
After education, this website considers that improving local public transport is the next most important task facing the region. Unfortunately, the region’s politicians, driven by unrealistic ambitions in this area, have made a series of errors.
First, they devoted a great deal of time and effort, and probably dissipated some of the little good will they still enjoyed in Whitehall, in campaigning for high speed rail (HS2) to be extended from Birmingham to Leeds, with a link to the East Coast Main Line to Durham and Newcastle, at huge expense. This should never have been a priority. It is improvements to local public transport, principally buses but also the Metro, that will get local people to their workplace, college and leisure facilities. True, the first of a £362m fleet of 46 new Metro trains is due to arrive in the region this year; and true, the region has been granted £163.5m by the government (of £804m over-ambitiously requested) for bus service improvements over the next three years. And work is well under way on the new Northumberland rail line linking Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth to the Metro at Northumberland Park.
These are substantial achievements. But there is more that could be done. The North East is still missing out on around £600m from the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement that it could take control of if it had a devolution deal. That is money it could spend, if it chose, on re-opening the Leamside Line, linking Ferryhill and the old Durham coalfield to the Metro at Pelaw, just as the Northumberland Line does to the north of the river. The region’s councillors and MPs are campaigning hard for the Leamside Line, and this website supports that campaign, but they are doing so without any public acknowledgement that this author has seem that the means of getting their wish are largely in their own hands: devolution.
Devolution would also open the possibility (though not offer a guarantee) for the local authorities to take control of local bus services through franchising, as is London and as planned in Greater Manchester, instead of having a more limited enhanced partnership between the region’s joint transport committee and the bus companies
Source: Office for National Statistics
The factors discussed above – jobs, productivity, education, transport and health – are just a few among many that affect quality of life. Since 2011 the ONS has been measuring personal well-being by asking people to evaluate how satisfied they are with their life overall and whether they feel they have meaning and purpose in their life, and about their emotions (happiness and anxiety).
The latest ONS bulletin on this subject, issued on 15 October 2021 covering the year to March 2021, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, reported that across the UK average ratings of well-being had deteriorated across all four indicators, continuing a trend that was seen across most indicators in the previous period, but even more sharply. The most recent annual declines in personal well-being in the UK, it reported, were the greatest seen since measurements started.
That is not surprising bearing in mind the pandemic. What is surprising though, is that in spite of all their other problems discussed above, the people of the North East proved exceptionally resilient during the pandemic.
The ONS reported that average ratings of happiness declined in all countries and regions of the UK compared with the previous period apart from the North East and the East Midlands; average ratings of anxiety increased everywhere apart from Northern Ireland and the North East; and average ratings of feeling that the things done in life are worthwhile declined everywhere apart from the North East. Only in relation to declining life satisfaction did the North East fail to buck the trend.
The metrics itemised above are only a few of the many that could be used. Readers may like to choose other measures to monitor the North East’s levelling up progress. The government pledged in its Levelling Up White Paper to publish an annual progress report. A technical annex detailing how progress towards meeting the 2030 target date the government has set itself for achieving its 12 levelling up missions will be measured can be found here. Alternatively, NELEP publishes annual updates on progress towards the targets in its own strategic economic plan (SEP) here as well as much other regional research and relevant publications besides on its Evidence Hub here. Nomis, the UK’s official labour market statistics, publishes regular and frequent statistics on a large number of topics of interest at various geographic levels here. A special ONS web page on local statistics enables users to customise and analyse their own geographical statistics here.
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