Equality of Opportunity: South-East Wakefield

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 21 June 2022.

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Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth 4:00, 21 June 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered increasing equality of economic opportunities in south east Wakefield.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I thank the House authorities for allowing me to raise a very important matter that relates to my constituency. I am aware of a certain event in another part of Wakefield on Thursday. Members will no doubt be listening carefully to ensure I avoid mentioning such matters, and I undertake to do so. I am most concerned to raise issues affecting the part of my constituency that I have described as south-east Wakefield. It is more or less, but not entirely, coterminous with the constituency of Hemsworth, which I have represented for over 26 years now.

Prompted in part by Government rhetoric about levelling up, I want to show how areas such as the one I represent are desperately in need of a new deal. Let me first tell Members about a conversation I had the other day with a young man named Zac Gaskell, 12 years old. He came along to see me with his dad Lee. Zac is an elected member of the Youth Parliament for our area. It was a great privilege to meet him. I asked him how he had come to be elected and what was in his manifesto. He said, “Well, the most important thing is that people in power need to listen to the voices of young people. After all, we—young people—are the future.” I agree with him; I am sure we all do.

The truth is that opportunities for young people in south-east Wakefield are severely limited. The situation is becoming dire. Having carefully read much of the Government’s information about levelling up, I have come to the conclusion that there is something missing. If we are going to talk about levelling up, what the country needs is some kind of analytical tool to guide us and by which we can measure the success or failure of the Government in achieving greater equality of economic opportunity for areas such as south-east Wakefield.

I believe there is such an analytical tool, lying easily to hand, that the country should use. These days, we call it social mobility. It used to be assumed that the next generation—the Zacs of this world—would get a better life than our generation. I think that is probably what brought most of us into politics: the idea that we could improve the way the country and the world operate. Some people call it the British promise, and we often now call it social mobility. With an increasingly centralised Government focused around Whitehall and the Cities of Westminster and London, it is no longer the case that this British promise of a better life will be delivered for areas such as south-east Wakefield.

Areas like mine are being held back. I want to show why, and speak about how and what we might do to think about changing the life chances of people I represent. My constituency is among the least socially mobile in the whole of England. There are 533 constituencies in England and mine is the fourth worst for social mobility; we are the 529th out of 533 seats. The Government have acknowledged the wider problem. I think that is why the idea of levelling up has been developed, and why the Government have appointed a Social Mobility Commission and now a social mobility tsar.

If the Government cannot offer assistance to a constituency like mine, we know that the model they are using does not work. What is curious about the commission is that the whole lot of them resigned back in 2020, as Members may remember. The commission said that inequality in Britain is

“now entrenched from birth to work.”

Certainly, that is a description of the area I represent. The new social mobility tsar, Katharine Birbalsingh, has said that working-class kids should maybe not aim so high. Indeed, last week she said that we should stop fixating on getting poor children to university—an extraordinary thing to say—and encourage them instead to celebrate “smaller steps” up the ladder. That is just not good enough. Is that the best that the Government’s appointee can say to Zac and his friends? “Don’t aim high, Zac. Take a few small steps. That is maybe all you can expect.”

What does such advice mean in practice? It means that a child born into a certain group in my constituency or elsewhere will likely die in the same social group that they, their parents and grandparents were part of. The ability to move up the ladder is negligible in an area like mine, and the situation is getting worse. Social mobility and deprivation levels are interconnected. My area is becoming more deprived as this Tory Government have gone on, not less. For example, we are now the 111th most deprived of the English constituencies. In 2015, we were the 130th, so we have declined by 19 positions. That is probably not surprising given that deprivation is growing, and it relates to the lack of social mobility in our area.

I pay tribute to the people in my area. They work hard; they were the miners who powered and lit our country, and did all the things necessary in the worst conditions imaginable at work. They are wonderful people. I guess we all think that about our own constituents, but in my case it is the truth. There are many companies in my area, some led by ex-miners, that want to help. They are exemplary, and rooted in the local community. Many leaders of those companies have a social conscience and want to bring social mobility back to life, give local people more opportunities and reverse the trends in deprivation, but they desperately need help and support.

I hope the council will put in bids for levelling-up funds that could help locally. If we are successful, it is to be welcomed, but if we are going to give the kids in Wakefield a chance, we need the Government to address the issues that are interconnected with deprivation and a lack of social mobility. I want briefly to touch on four or five of those issues. The first is productivity. These day, we measure productivity per head by something called GVA—gross value added. In Yorkshire and the Humber, gross value added per worker is just over £21,000, whereas in London it is £48,000, so the productivity per head in Yorkshire as a whole—it is slightly worse in my constituency—is £27,000 a year less than for workers in London, and that is because of lack of investment. Without investment, work will be less productive, and if the productivity of each worker is lower, we can therefore expect wages to be lower.

Average pay in Hemsworth is £495 a week. In the Prime Minister’s constituency, it is £728 a week. On average, the workers in Hemsworth in my constituency are paid £12,000 a year less than those in the Prime Minister’s constituency. What is worse is that earnings in Hemsworth have grown by 6% since 2010. In the UK, that growth in wages was 22%—almost four times more. I relate that back to the lack of investment in productivity. We are falling further behind. We can see the problems in our area, both chronic and acute, and we desperately need investment.

That brings me to my third point: the need to be mobile in an area where the place of work is no longer the local village. I represent 23 former colliery villages, and the work used to be located in each village. Now that work has gone, people have to travel some distance to get to decent employment, but the problem is that a quarter of people in my constituency do not have access to a car, and public transport—including rail and bus routes—is being cut back. I deliberately placed my office in a station, so people who do not have a car can get there, but the train service is being cut to that very station. From May this year, Northern Rail has cut services, including the links to Sheffield and Leeds, where there are jobs.

The same has happened with buses. I guess all of us who represent rural areas know that the bus services are in decline—in my area, severe decline. Seven routes with weekend timetables have been cut and 29 routes with weekday timetables have been affected. On top of that—perhaps because of it—transport spending in Yorkshire is a third of that spent per head in London. If we compare the £906 per head spent in London to the £300-odd in Yorkshire, that means we need £86 billion overall to be on par with London. How will we get geographic mobility, and the connected social mobility, if so many people do not have cars and public transport is reduced as I have described?

The Minister may have something about High Speed 2 in her briefing notes, but the eastern leg—through Yorkshire, up to Leeds—has been cut, although I think £100 million has been left to see whether we can build an inter-urban link between Sheffield and Leeds. The fact is that HS2 would drive a corridor as wide as two motorways through my constituency, but provide no stations or halts there. We would have all the pain, but none of the gain. HS2 is not a solution. We need proper interconnectivity, and I am sure many other Members would say the same about their constituencies. In areas with declining social mobility and increasing deprivation, public transport is imperative.

That brings me to a further point about the cuts as a result of austerity. Since 2015, Wakefield Council has suffered cuts of £57 million in real terms. The Minister may say, “Well, there is £20 million in levelling-up funds,” but that £20 million, which would be welcome, is being funded by the very cuts suffered by the public services in our area. It is not as though this is new money; it is money that has been recycled from cuts.

The cuts to school funding in our area are particularly painful. My constituency has lost almost £400 per pupil. When the social mobility tsar says to kids in my area, “Just take a few steps, but don’t dream of going to university,” the truth is that only small steps are possible because of cuts to schools. I take exception and offence to the advice given to people like Zac.

My final point is about digital exclusion. We all know that the economy is changing before our eyes and a new industrial revolution is well on its way, with more to come with artificial intelligence and all the other prospects available to us, but connectivity to the internet, which is so important to building a lively cultural and economic life in a constituency, is restricted in the south-east of Wakefield. The broadband speeds are among the worst in the whole country. Three quarters of communities in my area are in the worst 30% of areas for broadband connectivity.

The average download speed in Hemsworth is 52 Mbps, but in the Prime Minister’s constituency it is twice as high at 107 Mbps. It is not acceptable that communities should be left behind in this way by public transport, cuts and the other things I have described. Wherever we look, we are being held back. We need an active Government who will: secure investment; increase productivity; address the problems of geographic mobility as a result of the cuts to public transport; restore the service cuts, particularly in schools, which I feel passionate about; and invest in broadband. We need a Government who will offer real opportunities to local business leaders who want to root themselves back in the community, who recognise the value of a loyal and hard-working workforce, and who want to give people a chance to restore the kind of life they had before the mines were closed all those years ago. All those steps could and would improve opportunity in our area. I just hope the Government are listening, although sometimes I doubt they are.

Let me finish on a bigger question. South-east Wakefield has issues that require active government, not the small government that the Chancellor is always rabbiting on about. That is also the case in many other communities across the country, especially in the wake of the covid pandemic, but the issues I have described show how chronic and acute the problems are in south-east Wakefield. That ought to lead us to pose a bigger question: can the current neoliberal economic model and the ossified, over-centralised state frameworks really deliver social justice? I do not believe they can.

Levels of inequality are now verging on the obscene in parts of our country. The richest people in society have increased their wealth by £700 billion since the crash, yet for people in my constituency, wages and salaries are declining or stagnating. The cost of living is skyrocketing and public services are becoming overstretched. Within this national context, it is perhaps unsurprising that areas like mine have been held back for so long. Although the idea of levelling-up money is to be welcomed—we will bid for it and I will engage with it—we need to recognise that nothing less than a full-scale economic system change and proper devolution of power will do, so that people who make decisions can understand their impact on local people. That does not happen now.

Long ago, I came to the conclusion that the economic, cultural, political and social distances between decision makers here in the capital and areas such as south-east Wakefield are so vast as to ensure that there will be no progress towards social justice in our area without radical change. That is because the decision makers are so remote from life as it is lived by the people I represent. I represent middle England, right in the middle of the country—people who work hard, play by the rules, pay their taxes, and yet are being left behind. I leave this final thought with the Minister: can she convincingly say to the young people of my area, like Zac, that the status quo, with all its structural problems, can really offer the change that south-east Wakefield requires? I do not believe so.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 4:18, 21 June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate Jon Trickett on securing this debate and thank him for raising this important subject. His passion for securing the best possible future for his constituency is shared by the Government. I was interested to hear what he had to say about his constituents Zac and Lee. In answer to the question that he just asked, I would say yes; not just the status quo, but our levelling-up agenda will deliver for his constituents and across the country. I will go on to explain that in a moment.

I want to address the hon. Gentleman’s point about the social mobility commissioner. I am going to hazard a guess that the hon. Member did not listen to her speech. I did, and I am afraid to say that his quotation was a misrepresentation of her remarks. I am not sure in which outlet he read it, but what she actually said was that we need to stop obsessing about getting people into Oxford and Cambridge; that there is a rags to riches version of social mobility that assumes people have to go right from the bottom straight to the top, like Dick Whittington, instead of taking steps up the ladder; and that that attitude denigrates lots of good jobs such as teaching and skilled professions. I think that is something that the hon. Gentleman would probably agree with. I am very supportive of the social mobility commissioner and I think he would find her speech interesting. She is a very clever woman, who understands social mobility more than most. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read her state of the nation report when it is released—I think, by the end of this month.

To answer some of the points raised, it is best to go back to the beginning and why we are having these debates. Levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s agenda. We set out a clear commitment to unlock economic prosperity across all areas of the country, including Wakefield and Hemsworth. It is about providing momentum to address long-standing regional inequalities, which the hon. Gentleman clearly articulated, to enable people to pursue life chances that have previously been out of reach. To quote the White Paper, “Stay local, go far.” His point that work in previous times was in the village—so that people did not have to commute—and that that does not work for today’s society was well made. That is something we recognise. Those structural inequalities will not be addressed by simply spending more money. We need to do better.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned issues for rural constituencies. I represent a rural constituency, and I know that the Government have been funding a lot of schemes to provide mobility for those people who are cut off. I asked for information and was told that there is a fund that is devolved to the Mayor of West Yorkshire. She has £1.4 billion for transport improvements across West Yorkshire. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to speak to her to address some of these issues. As he said, not everything can be done in Whitehall, and I hope he can work with her.

Some £370 million has been provided to West Yorkshire Combined Authority for projects aimed at improving and investing in public and sustainable transport, and that covers Wakefield as well. I know that not all of Wakefield is in the hon. Gentleman’s patch, but that is something he should speak to the Mayor about. I do not know the specifics—I suspect these are in the city—but projects include cycle routes from Wakefield Kirkgate rail station and improved access to Wakefield bus station. As he said, where those buses come and go is not just about the stations, but the communities that they pass in between.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned local government funding cuts. As Minister for local government, that is something I hear from Opposition Members again and again, and I will repeat what I always say: nobody likes cuts, certainly not this Government. We had to make them because we were compelled to by the financial situation we found when we came into government, which was left by the previous Labour Government. We are fixing many of the problems, which we have not been able to fix for a very long time. I hope the hon. Gentleman will see that when I talk about the funding we are providing to his area.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned broadband, and I recognise some of the points he made. I want to let him and his constituents know that the Government have invested heavily over a number of years through the Building Digital UK programme and other funding streams. Some 99% of West Yorkshire will have access to superfast broadband by October of this year. The vast majority of the region, including Wakefield, already has access to superfast broadband, with speeds of at least 30 megabits per second. If he does not find that in Hemsworth, he should write to my colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, so that they can pick that up specifically. I do not know enough about that programme to provide more information, beyond what I have just said.

Levelling up is about enabling local places to determine and support their own economic priorities. It is not just about the Government handing out money and telling areas what to do. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there was a devolution deal with West Yorkshire, and I talked about the funding that has gone to the metro Mayor, Tracy Brabin, who was elected last year. But in addition to that investment fund, the devolution deal includes a range of powers and funding streams, which are now transferred to the mayoral combined authority, including for the adult education budget and transport, as well as responsibility for the police and crime commissioner. We are handing powers closer to the people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Since Mayor Brabin’s election the Government have awarded £830 million of additional funding for sustainable transport schemes across West Yorkshire, demonstrating the difference that clear and visible leadership can make to local economies. Building on local priorities, we are also providing West Yorkshire with £217 million from the towns fund, £50 million of which is in Wakefield, and more than £72 million through the first round of the levelling-up fund, which I know the hon. Gentleman is aware of—he referred to the £20 million for Wakefield. The previous local growth funding, which amounts to £695 million for West Yorkshire, has also enabled the Wakefield South East Gateway, which will deliver 2,500 new homes on the City Fields development, as well as the completion of the Wakefield waterfront. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that this funding demonstrates the scale of the Government’s commitment to working with Mayors, local MPs and other local leaders to deliver for their cities, towns and villages. I encourage him to work with Tracy Brabin to ensure that this large investment programme really benefits all parts of Wakefield, including south-east Wakefield.

The hon. Gentleman said that his constituency would need £86 billion to level up to London, but it is not a fair comparison. He mentioned that his is a rural constituency. What we need to do is make sure that areas are able to develop as much as they should within the parameters around them. Not everywhere can have 8 million to 14 million people, tube networks and so on, and I do not think that his constituents would necessarily want that.

I mention the levelling-up fund specifically because I have been told that there has been additional funding from the getting building fund, which has supported two enterprise zones, at Langthwaite and South Kirkby business parks—both in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency —to stimulate business growth and create local employment opportunities. I am sure he welcomes the multimillion-pound cross-Government investment to expand the unique Production Park—the live events campus in his constituency —which is supporting local people into good-quality apprenticeships and jobs in this growing creative industry. On the same site sits the new Backstage Academy, which will provide the next generation of live industry and media professionals. It is delivering degree-level education to over 200 students, with an industry focus so that more than 90% of students have secured employment before they complete the course.

The £4.8 billion we are investing through the levelling-up fund is providing the tools for local areas across the country to invest in their infrastructure, improve everyday life by regenerating their town centres and high streets, and invest in cultural and heritage assets. As the hon. Gentleman said, Wakefield was successful in securing £20 million through the first round of the fund, to support the expansion of the Tileyard North development and to transform a derelict site with a new cultural offer celebrating Wakefield’s heritage. This will bolster Wakefield’s position as a growing hub for the creative industries and bring with it good-quality jobs.

In the levelling-up fund prospectus, we recognise the crucial role of MPs in championing the interests of their communities and understanding local priorities. That is why we expect bidding authorities to consult local MPs fully as part of their bid development, with MPs able to officially endorse in writing one priority bid for their local area. That ensures that MPs have a hugely positive role in shaping bids, perhaps helping to broker a local consensus on what their area really needs. I note the work the hon. Gentleman is undertaking with Wakefield Council in shaping a local bid for his constituency, to be submitted in July, and I wish him luck. I am sure that he and colleagues across the House will make the most of this opportunity to represent their constituencies.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the opportunities presented through the two town deals awarded to Wakefield, providing combined Government investment of over £50 million. I recognise that these are not directedly targeted on the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but the benefits will flow—they do not stop at local government boundaries or town boundaries. I hope that these investments, particularly in Wakefield’s urban centre, will lead to a stronger and more resilient local economy across the wider area.

Given that the hon. Member for Hemsworth and I are on different sides of the House, we will disagree on many things, but I want him to know that this is an agenda that we in the Government care very much about. We will reflect on the points he has raised and continue to pursue this agenda. We will engage with our West Yorkshire partners to inform our decision making, because we believe that all parts of the UK should have the means to shape their future positively.

Question put and agreed to.