Brexit was a roar for change from people and places left behind. It was cultural and political but also fundamentally economic.
Our historic tradition of centralised rule from Westminster means that investment too often follows geography and welfare follows people. Successive governments have invested in the South East as the quickest and clearest return on investment. They have then used the tax receipts to send welfare cheques to the North. Combined with the selective migration of talent, this results in an endless and frustrating feedback loop that stops real regeneration from ever happening. We are stuck with quick-fix solutions that create more problems than they solve.
All political parties have made the same mistake. Labour is just as guilty of this as previous Tory administrations. Too much inspiring rhetoric on levelling up has never been translated into reality. This must change. How do we transform left-behind regions and imbue areas with a new feeling of prosperity and wellbeing requires economic engagement and success? How do we harness the core cause of the Brexit roar and alienation? That is the central economic question of the post- Brexit and post-pandemic world.
Covid has made the levelling up and regeneration agenda even more urgent. The pandemic has been an economic catastrophe, especially for the self-employed and those running small businesses. But it has also brought about a tectonic shift that could revitalise the regeneration debate. The new reality of virtual working and the hub-and-spoke office could enable the reversal of the unhealthy migration of many decades and the ‘brain drain’ to London and offer opportunities to those in ‘left behind’ areas if the right components can be put in place. The second world war led to the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. The pandemic could bring about similar shifts with equally transformative results. But it requires political and economic boldness.
Any plan for recovery has to be centred around both short-term stimulus and longer-term transformation. It must also take into account behavioural factors too. Hope, for instance, is an unquantifiable yet vitally important factor of all regeneration efforts. Traditionally, it is not something that Whitehall is good at. Too often, our Victorian machinery of government fails to communicate well on the public benefit of infrastructure. We should stop hiding it away during development but have simplified Gantt charts displayed to the public like the church roof fund thermometer showing progress. The vaccine has shown that successful rollouts of major logistical operations can be done. We should learn from it.
Of course, longer-term regeneration isn’t easy. But we know from previous models what works and what doesn’t. Lord Heseltine has literally written the book on this with his report No Stone Unturned. We have seen successes in our recent political history with the LDDC, Liverpool Docks and the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation. What doesn’t work is Local Authorities and
LEPs putting brakes on innovation, as they too often do. How, then, can we inspire the new wave Heseltine-esque regeneration?
This question is especially true for the small cities, big towns and coastal areas which don’t have Metro Mayors. Getting the right structures and incentives in place are key. Some will claim that only the public sector can do this. But that ignores the lessons of economic. history. The golden age of Victorian railways was private sector led.
Twenty-five years ago, I set up the first localist think tank in Britain called The Local Identity Agency. A quarter of a century on, I am continuing this work through my Big Tent Foundation, Norfolk Enterprise Festival and Bridge of Hope charity. Having spoken with entrepreneurs, councillors and businesses, I believe the missing link in our levelling up debate lies in expanding and supporting new Local Regeneration Corporations. They should be as dedicated vehicles and not a LEP, financed from a mix of private and public funding and have the ability to access multiple pots. They also need compulsory purchase powers, land value capture, tax increment financing and tax breaks for freeports.
The results could be transformational. Just imagine a Durham Dales to Darlington or Norwich to Cambridge Railway Development Corporation. It would be able to develop the stations, keep the land value gain and invest in connectivity and skills. It could usher in a new golden age of rail and opportunity.
The time has come for such policymaking boldness. We need to stop talking about levelling up and actually do it. Previous generations invented the NHS and the welfare system. Now we should be as ambitious as they were. We are facing a once-in-a-generation moment to reform our society for the better. Let’s seize it.