North-south divide ‘getting worse’ as levelling-up promises appear empty

The UK’s deep regional divides are widening despite the government’s promises to level up the country, a think tank for the north of England has warned.

In a report published today IPPR North, a branch of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said that two years after Boris Johnson was elected Conservative leader on a pledge to close regional inequalities, a yawning gap remained between rhetoric and the policy reality.

Jonathan Webb, a senior research fellow at IPPR North and one of the report’s authors, said: “What the government needs to do to show that it’s serious about levelling up is actually come up with policies that match the scale of the ambition.”

Many of the government’s promises relate to new pots of money, such as the levelling-up fund, but the think tank noted that the allocation represented an investment of only £32 per person in the north. That was set against a £413 per-person drop in annual council service spending over the past ten years.

The shared prosperity fund, set to replace EU structural funding the UK no longer receives, would deliver a 40 per cent shortfall over the next three years compared with the EU funds.

The report said that another example of the government’s tendency to over-promise and under-deliver was the scrapping in November of the eastern leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Leeds and the downgrading of a proposed high-speed rail line between Leeds and Manchester.

The delay to a white paper — which could be published at the end of this month as part of the prime minister’s leadership fightback — showed that the government had yet to define what levelling up meant, IPPR North said.

Mr Webb said: “What it means in very blunt terms is people in the north of England have less access to prosperity and the good life that people in other parts of the country might have access to.”

He said that for every job created in the north of England, just under three were created in London and the southeast, because of “investment decisions being favoured towards those parts of the country”.