Levelling up 2023: Will the Government reward the North East with much-needed money?
As we enter a New Year the same questions continue to be asked over how realistic the government’s levelling up ambitions are.
Most voters in the North East believe that the Government does not give their area its fair share of funding, a survey conducted by UK in a Changing Europe and YouGov has found. And it is in the North East where it is felt most strongly than any other region (91%).
The survey demonstrates a widespread perception that high streets have been in decline over the last decade. Asked whether their local high street had improved or worsened in the last 10 years, a majority of people in the North East (66%) said it had got worse.
The Government hopes to change that after announcing new money and powers over skills, transport and housing will be devolved to local leaders in the North East, as all seven local authorities unite to create a new combined authority.
The Government will guarantee the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority more than £1.4 billion over the next 30 years which many hope will be a significant step in levelling up the region.
A new mayor isn’t due to be elected until 2024 however, and until then communities will have to hope their bids for Government cash are successful. The second round of Levelling Up funding has been delayed from December and is expected to be announced soon. Darlington, Newton Aycliffe, Horden and Stanley are all hope to carry out much-needed regenerations of their town centres.
What will Rishi Sunak do for the North East?
Rishi Sunak arrived at Downing Street with a huge reputation in the North East already on his shoulders thanks to significant investments on Teesside, helping to launch the Freeport, and bringing the Treasury to Darlington.
At an event in the town in July, when lost out to Liz Truss to become PM, an audience member asked Mr Sunak what the government’s phrase levelling up meant.
“I want everyone, no matter where they live in the UK, to feel that they have fantastic opportunity, and that they have pride in the place they call home,” Mr Sunak replied. It is a statement he has repeated since taking office, while also pledging to invest in the left-behind north.
But constituents won’t have forgotten when he proudly told party members he had been working to divert funding from “deprived urban areas” towards more prosperous towns.
The former chancellor bragged that he had started changing public funding formulas to ensure more prosperous towns receive “the funding they deserve”. The New Statesman magazine, which obtained video revealing Mr Sunak’s remarks, said they were made to grassroots Tories in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, on July 29.
In the video, Mr Sunak told Tory supporters: “I managed to start changing the funding formulas, to make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserve because we inherited a bunch of formulas from Labour that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas and that needed to be undone.
Problems with rail services in northern England are also expected to last for months.
Thousands of trains have been cancelled across the region at short notice in recent months, with TransPennine Express and Northern all affected. Much of the disruption has been caused by workers no longer volunteering to do paid shifts on their rest days, amid an industrial relations crisis across the sector.
Yet there is also the feeling that the north is being neglected of much-needed improvements, as plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail, HS2 and Great British Railways hit the buffers.
What have local politicians been up to?
Bishop Auckland Conservative MP Dehenna Davison was seen by many as one of the party’s rising stars and was promoted to the role of levelling up minister in 2022, but she shocked constituents in November when she said she won’t be standing at the next election. A blow for the party but also, potentially, the North East as having a local MP in such a significant role would have surely been advantageous for the region’s prospects.
In North West Durham, Richard Holden is working under the transport brief, and could prove pivotal in helping finally dual the A66, but is set to lose his seat due to boundary changes.
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Darlington’s Peter Gibson is more optimistic about levelling up and has praised the changes in the town so far. He points to redevelopment projects at Darlington station, the economic campus, Head of Steam Museum, and town centre improvements as a key example of levelling up.
For Labour, politicians throughout County Durham continue to lobby the government to invest more to enable the region to thrive.
Levelling Up the North East will not be a quick fix but in 2023 we will see whether the Government stands by its 2019 pledge or whether it’s a broken promise.