Does the government care about the North? That’s the question on the lips of many across the north of England this week as major flagship projects are halted in Doncaster, England prepares to enter a second national lockdown and Business Secretary, Alok Sharma addresses the Confederation of British Industry, (CBI).
In his speech at the CBI’s annual conference this week the minister spoke in length about the further lockdown measures, current government support and Brexit whilst saluting businesses for their handling of the crisis in recent months.
He also addressed some of the issues surrounding mass testing, spoke of potential future vaccines and looked to the future with words on building back greener, skills and levelling up, referencing the government’s plans to “turbocharge our regions, to enable them to become global hubs in their own right.”
Whilst Mr Sharma talked of the North East of England becoming the home of choice for companies delivering carbon capture and storage, Midlands’ manufacturing and the brilliant life sciences sector which will be “propelled to even greater heights from Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh,” there was no mention of the South Yorkshire area.
His message was clear – the government will build back better telling the assembled virtual audience that the imbalance was “intolerable before coronavirus.”
However, commenting on Mr Sharma’s words, Dan Fell, Doncaster Chamber of Commerce CEO said, “The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a significant economic crisis. With the public purse significantly dented, the only realistic option that our country and region has is to invest to grow out of this crisis.”
The phrase ‘levelling up’ has become one of the early political buzzwords of the new decade. Emboldened by its enlarged Commons majority, the Government committed to invest in ways that ‘level up’ the economic fortunes of the regions and communities that feel they have been left behind.
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson had always assumed his premiership would be defined by three things: delivering Brexit, Global Britain and his promise to “level up” the country. But then along came the coronavirus. Far from being the great leveller, as the pandemic shifts into its second wave, and as a full national lockdown looms, it threatens to leave Britain’s left-behind regions even further behind.
Mr Fell continued, “In the weeks before lockdown we saw two of Doncaster’s flagship projects – a new hospital for the town centre and a Railway Station serving Doncaster Sheffield Airport and the surrounding area – take backwards steps as the Government’s appetite to support these interventions seemingly waned.
“Therefore, in addition to providing a roadmap out of lockdown, we now need to see a detailed programme from Government that articulates what levelling up will mean for businesses in Doncaster and that gives a cast iron commitment to the catalytic infrastructure projects that can stimulate economic growth in our locality.
“Once more, anything resembling detail in this area was lacking in the Secretary of State’s speech; it is also alarming that the only cities mentioned in this section of the speech were Manchester, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge. Whilst not decrying the need to maximise the assets of any city, these are already major economic centres; ‘levelling up’ must surely be targeted, in the first instance, at economies such as Darlington, Derby and Doncaster.”
“Whilst the support that is being afforded to some businesses and workers is welcome at the moment, continued Mr Fell, “We need to be honest about the fact that, in reality, these support measures are just a finger in the dyke. To recover from the crisis and ensure that we do not have a lost decade ahead of us, it is imperative that Government rapidly invests in Northern towns and cities and honours its commitments to ‘level up’ the UK.”
“In the current climate, the business community is understandably jaundiced and cynical of Government rhetoric. Now would be the ideal time for Government to demonstrate its sincerity and to demonstrate to businesses that it will play its role in growing back Doncaster’s economy by backing the flagship projects that matter most to our borough.”