Last week over 300 delegates attended the inaugural Northern Research Group (NRG) conference in Doncaster, including over 30 Conservative MPs many of whom were elected to represent constituencies in the north of England, Wales and the Scottish Borders in the 2019 General Election, and local business leaders, councillors, policy experts and representatives from the third sector.
The theme for the conference was Levelling Up the North and discussion was focussed around the opportunities that the levelling up agenda presents for communities, across many different themes, for example, education and skills, economic growth and jobs, health, transport, green energy and housing.
Chairman of the NRG, Jake Berry MP, the former Northern Powerhouse Minister addressed the conference, stating , “Whilst people and communities in the north have been crying out for grassroots change, all Whitehall has given us is astroturf. If levelling up is to mean anything it must be radical. That means an end to incremental government, and an end to the conservation of southern privilege, because whether they like it or not, this is our new political reality.
We want to build an economy that is more Canary North and less Canary Wharf”.
Jake Berry went on to outline a three point plan which called for a levelling up fiscal formula for English regions on the same principle as the Barnet formula which currently adjusts spending to England and Wales, noting that spending in London is currently 15% higher per head than the UK average. In addition, he urged Government to adopt a ‘devo-max’ approach to the regions, with a presumption that proposals and business cases from MPs, councils and business leaders would be likely to be approved. He also said that Government needed to accelerate the movement of Whitehall functions out of the capital as the siting of key operations in London had itself become a barrier to change, and accelerate local decision siting housing targets as a key example of how one policy may suit one area but it shouldn’t be assumed it fits all.
Jake Berry added that devolved regions needed the power to lower taxes, pointing out that the north has a bigger economy than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – equivalent to the ninth largest economy in Europe. He also called for academic and vocational qualifications to have an equal footing and said he wanted to see new educational establishments in the north based on the delivery of skills training, which he referred to as ‘Voxbridge’.
John Stevenson, MP for Carlisle who also addressed the conference added, “I am fully committed to the Government’s levelling up agenda. We have seen neglect in the northern regions for far too long, and now we have an opportunity to see real change and levelling up faster and bolder. Regional devolution and decision making is the key to addressing many of the issues we see in our communities and redressing the imbalance we have suffered for too long, however to truly make levelling up work, the rebalance of power needs to be radical and accompanied by fiscal powers, conservative freedoms and clear accountability.”