'Go big or go home' to heal north-south divide, No 10 told

Helen Pidd North of England editor
Photograph: Eddie Keogh/AP

Boris Johnson’s government has been told to “go big or go home” if it is to truly “level up” the country and heal social division, with the former head of the civil service warning that transport investment alone will not eliminate the imbalances between London and the rest of the UK.

Bob Kerslake, who ran the civil service from 2011 to 2014, issued the ultimatum as head of the UK2070 commission, an independent inquiry into the deep–rooted geographical inequalities within the UK.

“Levelling up can’t just be about transport; it’s about skills, research and development, education and places, as well as local economies,” he said, before a report on Thursday detailing the findings of the 18-month inquiry.

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Though it has committed to building HS2 and what it is now calling “high-speed north” – an east-west railway line across the Pennines – the government had not yet grasped the need for “radical change”, said Lord Kerslake, referencing the Marmot report, which earlier this week showed health inequalities have widened over the last decade, in large part due to the impact of cuts linked to the government’s austerity policies. These inequalities have increased despite the Conservatives talking since 2014 of building a “northern powerhouse”, which Kerslake said needed to be “bigger and bolder and more coherent and coordinated and cross-cutting”.

The 18-month inquiry concluded that, as climate change is “the overarching national threat”, decarbonising the UK will exacerbate the imbalance between the south-east of England and everywhere else if the government does not ensure a “just” transition to a carbon-free future.

There are currently about 4m UK jobs in high carbon-producing sectors, highly concentrated in the east Midlands, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber, the commission found. If those workers are not retrained in carbon-free technologies, mass unemployment awaits: there are more than 40 local authorities where 25% of all employment comes from “climate-critical” sectors. In more than 10 of those, 30% of all jobs are highly carbon-intensive.

The government must ensure that replacements for these industries are not just concentrated in the “golden triangle” between Oxford, London and Cambridge, the report says.

The authors suggest government investment in new green industries – such as energy supply, battery technology, car production and the construction industry – be focused “in those areas with the greatest need for industrial restructuring”.

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This is particularly important as decarbonisation will also hit hardest in the poorest households, “for whom the costs of basic services and fuel are already a disproportionate burden”, the report says. Vulnerable communities will tend to experience greater adverse impacts from climate change, for example in terms of water and air quality and flood risk.

The report also demands a “connectivity revolution” over the next 25 years to build a network of cities, sustainable mass transit systems within all urban areas, enhanced links for “marginalised communities”, particularly in coastal areas, and the reopening or upgrade of 1,800 miles of rail line.

Other recommendations include tripling the shared prosperity fund – the post-Brexit successor to EU funding – equating to £15bn a year for 20 years, and the establishment of a £300bn, 20-year UK investment fund, as well as a “powerful cross-government ministerially-led committee” with a team dedicated to levelling up.

Related: England north-south divide set to grow with smaller towns worst hit

Addressing these issues will be crucial to bring the UK back together, argues Kerslake in his foreword to the report: “Inequality has created social division. In many parts of the UK people feel they have been left behind by the growth in wealth and opportunity elsewhere. This is reflected in the last three years’ debate over our future in Europe. We face a decade of disruption ahead – leaving the European Union, tackling climate change, the fourth industrial revolution – which threaten to increase these divisions.”

He urged an end to the simplistic narratives of division. “To succeed, we need to think about north and south, towns and cities, and urban and rural. The issues of economic underperformance and wellbeing affect all parts of the UK including coastal towns in the south-east of England,” he said.

“The new government is committed to ‘levelling-up’ Britain. This is welcome. However, if the government wants to achieve this end, it will have to have the courage to deliver the means. Only a comprehensive, large-scale, and long-term approach is likely to make any meaningful difference. To use the vernacular, the government needs to ‘go big or go home’.”

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Responding to the inquiry, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said: “I have been waiting my whole political life for a report like this. The UK 2070 commission has authoritatively exposed the massive scale of our regional divides. It has awoken a new, positive unity of purpose across the north and shaken the country out of its London-centricity.

“It is clear that closing the north-south divide will require a fundamental shift in the way power and resources are distributed across the UK, rather than isolated promises of new infrastructure and train lines.”

While the London region is recognised as the richest in Europe, six of the 10 poorest regions also lie within the UK, including Blackpool and Middlesbrough, the report notes.

Inequality affects all aspects of life in Britain. There is now a 19-year difference in healthy life expectancy between the most prosperous and most deprived areas, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Average household wealth fell by 12% in the north-east and east Midlands between 2016 and 2018, but grew nearly 80% in London and by more than 30% in south-east England, according to the ONS.