The Bill is clearly a significant piece of legislation and the centrepiece of the Government’s policy for the next couple of years. I fully support it and, in many respects, actively encourage the Government to be even more ambitious.
In my view, levelling up is two things: first, it is about simply improving people’s lives; and secondly, it is about closing the gap between the more and less prosperous areas of our country in an upwards direction. I accept that it is easy to talk about but far more challenging to achieve. There are five key ingredients: education and skills at all levels; infrastructure; the environment, particularly housing and planning; leadership and devolution at a local level; and of course, most importantly, private sector investment. Ultimately, it is those in the private sector—the wealth creators—who will really make a difference. It is vital that we encourage their investment, because they are the real game changers. We need to incentivise business to invest in less prosperous regions, which could also help to alleviate the housing problem in areas that are overpopulated.
The Bill is a serious bit of legislation with 325 pages, 193 clauses and 17 schedules—and we all get four minutes to talk about it. I could probably talk for many hours about different aspects of the Bill, but I will concentrate on two. First, development corporations are a welcome opportunity for local government to be innovative and ambitious for its area. They are a chance to help to redevelop an area and seek investment to revitalise it. They are a welcome development that I hope will be used extensively.
Secondly, on the most important aspect of the Bill, leadership and devolution, we have talked about taking back control from Brussels and we now need to take back control from Westminster. If we get that right, we can transform many different parts of our country. I suggest that moving towards unitaries is absolutely right. Devolving real powers is vital if devolution is truly to work, but responsibility is also vital so that we can encourage fresh and new leadership. Mayors, governors or whatever we want to call them will bring personality to the job and encourage new talent; Andy Street is an obvious example. They are key figures who represent different parts of the country.
I encourage the Government to be as ambitious as possible. We are a highly centralised country where 95% of all taxes go to the centre and most big decisions are made in Whitehall, not town hall. Carlisle is a good example. We recently had a significant amount of investment, but the final decision was always made in Whitehall or Westminster, rather than in Carlisle. If levelling up is to succeed, real power must be moved away from the centre, including fiscal powers and responsibilities. Local leadership can transform our provincial towns and cities, as well as larger urban areas, but it must be given the tools to succeed.
I support the Bill, but I encourage the Government to consider taking reserve powers so that, if there is unnecessary opposition from a particular area to combined authorities or Mayors, they have the opportunity to impose them if, when they have analysed that locality, there is broad support for them. I believe that is the only way that we will truly transform our regions.