In these testing times, I thought it was important to speak up today for those towns at the end of the line, which rarely reach the consciousness of our Westminster world. These towns, which have some of the worst deprivation in the UK, will suffer greatly from the current crisis. I urge the Government to do everything they can to support them through the crisis—I am taken by the people’s QE proposal from my noble friend Lord O’Neill—but they should also plan for the longer-term levelling up that was promised at the last election.
Given the last two years I have spent in Blackpool, and my role now working with Business in the Community to bring business’s attention to Britain’s overlooked towns, I will focus my remarks today on what levelling up means in practice. The promise of serious attention might well have contributed to swaying marginal seats in the north, but the words “levelling up” did not feature heavily in the Budget. Last year, the Government announced a town deal programme, focusing £3.6 billion of funding on 101 forgotten towns. If levelling up means bringing opportunity and hope to these towns once we are past the current crisis, then the Government will have gone a long way towards both defining levelling up and establishing its credibility in so doing.
I think we all get the intention of levelling up, but delivering it is another matter. Local people are looking for genuinely transformational commitment to their areas. Delivering this change in long-ignored places requires sensitive, long-term strategic investment, in tune with local opportunity and need and going beyond a single political term. I ask the Minister: how do the Government plan to direct the welcome investment described in the Budget towards these towns? Relevant spending pots include the stronger towns fund, the high street fund, the UK prosperity fund, housing funding, and skills and education spending, to name but a few.
Specifically, could the rollout of 4G and better digital infrastructure perhaps be prioritised for these towns, or could they even leapfrog to 5G? I sat on the House of Lords committee on regenerating seaside towns last year, which identified digital connectivity as a means of compensating for the isolation of these towns at the end of the line. Could we also add digital training academies and enterprise hubs, so that we can build skills for the future in these places? Can some of the hundreds of billions allocated to infrastructure be set aside for town deals to access, and can we find a way of assessing cost-benefit ratios more imaginatively to capture public benefit, rather than saving time spent on a train? A river crossing in Lowestoft could knit together two halves of the town, thus providing community cohesion at the same time as economic connectivity.
On housing investment, can the policy instruction to Homes England be amended so that it is not just tasked with building more housing to accommodate overheating in the south, but can also help those towns deal with seriously run-down neighbourhoods? Blackpool has an area of 10,000 units in the centre, which are the legacy of the traditional bed-and-breakfast industry; it now houses the greatest concentration of deprivation in England. At the moment, Homes England does not have the remit to help.
The town deal programme has promised not just to be about money but to provide a strategic approach as well. Will the Government consider having a town deal tsar to work across departments and deliver funding and strategic progress in these terms, and will they measure this progress in aligning government strategies and funding?
I also wonder whether some delivery capacity at the centre is required to move from headline messages to supporting local teams in achieving real change on the ground. For instance, the Government plan to move 22,000 civil servants outside London. Can this be integrated with the Government’s plans to create Civil Service hubs, and can those hubs be located in town deal areas? Again, I am aware of the Civil Service hub proposal for Blackpool, which has been agreed in principle for some time but never seems to progress.
The Budget said little about skills and education and the town deal programme focuses primarily on capital investment, but there is also a need to a focus on finding the best people and upskilling alongside capital projects. At the end of the day, this is about people, their self-belief and opportunities. If there is no one to inspire young people to set up social enterprises, a social enterprise building is just that—a building, without a heart. The last Government made a helpful intervention with opportunity areas in many of these deprived places, but unless they are given a reprieve then these unfortunately are soon to finish. One way or another, we need to see a much more determined focus on improving school results for these children. Focusing Department for Education civil servants and money in these areas might be a start.
I finished by congratulating the Government on their investment plans for infrastructure, but I urge them to follow up on their levelling-up commitment and to ensure that there is a genuine long-term impact on the places that need it most.