Levelling Up Bill: Bishop of Leeds highlights the importance of transport and education

On Tuesday 17th January 2023, the House of Lords debated the Levelling Up Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of Leeds made a speech on the importance of good transport links and amending discrepancies in education:

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, who has already stolen some of what I was going to say—great minds and all of that, maybe. When I first heard the phrase “levelling up”, I thought, “Here we go again—another slogan in search of substance”. Yet what we have heard today so far is that there is a great deal of potential substance to this Bill. I applaud the motivation and ambition behind it, and the attempt in the 12 missions to have a holistic approach rather than simply to pick off bits of our society. But I do think we need to take seriously, after the honest analysis that we had from the Minister, the argument that it gives the lie to the opening assertion of the White Paper that the UK is an unparalleled success story. If it was, we would not need the detail that we have before us. This sort of language of hubris can very easily militate against us taking seriously the scale of the task.

The parallel with Germany has already been mentioned. What is key to Germany—and I spent yesterday evening with 40 German soldiers and academics at a symposium in Leeds, in a curry house, but I will leave that bit out—is that what we learn from post-1989 Germany is not only that it has put in trillions of euros to level up between east and west but that the key to German success in many areas has been its federalism and its devolution of real power. Power is not centred in one geographical location. That means that investment and opportunity are able to take a long-term view, precisely because all of these things are rooted in local voices and real local power structures, not least in devolution to the Länder.

This approach to devolution has an impact on two of the missions that I want to focus on briefly. I realise the screen has gone blank, so I do not know how long I have got, but I will keep going. Oh, good—I have another five minutes. Marvellous.

I will be very brief. One of them is transport. One of the things that has constantly surprised me since I have been in this House is that investments in the north and south—in rail, for example—just do not bear comparison. If we look at the investment in Crossrail and then look at what was proposed several years ago for the entire north of England, it is ridiculous. There has to be serious investment, perhaps a rebalancing of investment, from the south-east and south to the entire north. HS2 might get you from London to Leeds 20 minutes quicker, but there is no point getting there if you cannot get anywhere else once you get off the train at Leeds. Having spent 90 minutes delayed on a train this morning, I feel that viscerally.

The east-west communications in this country are appalling, and they have economic, tourism, business and heritage weaknesses built into them. If you want to go east to west, you have to drive along the M62. What does that do to you when you live in the north-east? So that is transport—and do not get me on to the TransPennine Express, which is a great misnomer.

The second area I want to focus on is education. The disparities between north and south are shocking. Partly it is not simply because of poverty. Poverty is a phenomenon in itself, but it has to be related to housing, education and some of the other missions that are set out in the Bill. Some 1.2 million people are waiting for social housing. I think it was Shelter that pointed out that since 1993 we have lost 21,000 social houses every year—and we wonder why we have a problem. Some 120,000 children are living in temporary accommodation, yet we expect them to perform at school. We have schools as well as churches and other institutions having to feed children when they come to school because they are not able to be fed at home.

Look at the free school meals stats and discrepancies, and at the number of food banks. What will we offer through this Bill to articulate hope and create a vision for a generation of young people who have not really had it thus far? It needs more than technocratic solutions; it needs an articulation, a vision, that is more than economic. What about the social capital? Are food banks now priced in? We are now seeing in parts of the north, where I live, people who gave to food banks queuing up to receive from them. That social capital cannot be taken for granted—and I would extrapolate from that to the wider charitable sector.

I want to applaud a more holistic, long-term, hopeful proposal whereby the missions are not, in the end, in competition with each other. Reporting will be crucial.

Before I sit down, I want to signal that my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham is in discussion with the DfE and, through it, the Department for Levelling Up, about tabling an amendment, which was lost with the withdrawal of the Schools Bill, on land clauses affecting church schools in relation to local authority provision of sites for academies. So, this has been a general run around the issues, with a specific one at the end.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Ravensdale (CB): The area that I am most excited about is enabling greater local democracy—and thereby the proposals that exist to create a new combined county authority within the east Midlands, which will cover Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. I believe that is the single biggest change needed to begin addressing the economic disparities that exist between the east Midlands and the rest of the country in transport, public affairs and R&D. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds stated, those economic disparities are where this all starts. The plea from local leaders in the Midlands is to get the Bill through and into law as quickly as possible so we can progress with our local plans.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab): As for levelling up, we are not seeing much of this in the industrial heartlands of our country, in the West Midlands, where we are performing at 10% below pre-Covid levels in economic activity. The unemployment rate in the West Midlands for August to October 2022 was 4.9% compared to the UK average of 3.7%. As over 10% of jobs in the West Midlands were in the manufacturing sector compared to 7% nationally, one would have thought that the West Midlands would have been a priority area. Yet public spending in the West Midlands in 2021 was £12,841 per person, compared with £15,490 in London. Ministers continually ignore the needs of the Midlands.

I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds that if he thinks that travelling from Leeds to Manchester is slow on the railways, he should try going from Birmingham to Leicester. Unfortunately, in the programme for scaled-up railway improvements in the West Midlands and East Midlands, there is nothing for the Birmingham to Leicester route.

Baroness Henig (Lab): A second theme is why the Government have been willing to preside over widening disparities since 2010, before their conversion to the importance of levelling up in the last two or three years. Why was levelling up not important before that? Many speakers have pointed out that economic, social and environmental disparities have widened alarmingly since 2010—probably not surprisingly, since spending on public services was sharply reduced after that. We have also seen local government funding slashed, forcing councils to close a wide range of cherished local amenities, sports centres, other recreational facilities and libraries. For example, Sure Start centres, which did such valuable work and were central, one would have thought, to any levelling-up mission, have all been closed down. Such pots of regeneration money as have been made available by the Government, to be bid for by local authorities, appear to have been allocated on extremely flexible criteria, as the Prime Minister inadvertently revealed in the summer, and serious depravation does not appear to feature highly. We have also heard about European regional development funding not being fully replaced despite government promises.

Another theme running through the debate is transport inadequacies, particularly in the north and the Midlands. They were well documented by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, and indeed by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, whose sad tale of poor services between Birmingham and Leicester resonated strongly with this Leicester girl. How can we take seriously a levelling-up Bill that has no strategy to improve connectivity between major cities and less urban areas, and between the north-east and north-west of the country?

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