A ‘Northern Big Bang’ is just the start of levelling up
The Centre for Policy Studies recently launched a new report entitled ‘A Northern Big Bang: Unleashing Investment in the North’, co-authored by Jake Berry MP, the Leader of the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs. The report sets out how the Government can deliver the levelling up agenda as part of its promise to Northern voters, following the redrawing of the political map at the 2019 General Election.
In the best northern tradition, the report is direct and unabashed. It makes clear that private sector investment is the fastest way to redress the long-term trend of Northern infrastructure playing second fiddle to projects in London and the south-east. Public investment often takes a long time to agree and even longer to implement. This does not fit with the immediate focus of repairing an economy ravaged by Covid-19 or the need for results before the next General Election.
The stated aim is to deliver an economic Big Bang not seen since the deregulation of the City of London in 1986. Radicalism is therefore at its heart. Launching the report, Mr Berry commented that he hopes it will cause Treasury officials to splutter on their morning cornflakes. A witty remark on the surface but one which suggests he is on a mission to deliver.
Specific proposals include a Northern Infrastructure Bond and a Northern Recovery Bond to leverage institutional and individual capital respectively, Full Expensing to allow businesses to offset investment costs against Corporation Tax and an Initial Investment Incentive to provide a 10% refund against capital costs for new investments. All of these measures should be implemented without delay – indeed the Labour Party even referenced the first two in a policy launch that followed the report’s publication. It seems imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery.
There are also linked planning and devolution reforms, including a new regime to fast-track planning applications which either deliver significant investment or create hundreds of jobs. This regime would be overseen by a Northern Growth Board, formed of public and private sector representatives.
This begs the question – how would existing democratic structures fit within the Northern Growth Board? We already have Parish or Town Councils, District or Borough Councils, Metropolitan Borough Councils, County Councils, City Regions, Local Enterprise Partnerships, Combined Authorities and Directly Elected Mayors. Harnessing the involvement of these institutions without creating further bureaucracy is vital if we are to avoid further public scepticism about the planning system.
Perhaps the starkest thing about the report is what it does not focus on. Its laser focus is no bad thing; grappling with too many issues can often end in a muddle. But there are other big issues which need to be addressed in order to seize the opportunities of a Northern Big Bang. For instance, the report sets out an ambition for the North to be at the forefront of a green industrial revolution, but we need to hear more about how this can be delivered on the ground. The extension of Enterprise Zones to create Green Growth Zones with further tax incentives could be a good starting point. Let us hope the Chancellor uses the Budget to flesh out how this can be delivered.
There is a common tendency to misrepresent the north as a simple, homogenous blob. This could not be further from the truth; in reality the north is given life by its many diverse communities and the levelling up agenda will only succeed if we look beyond headline financial investment.
The focus instead must be to create genuine social value and improve the life chances of people who feel they’ve been left behind by successive governments. One of the clearest examples of this is primary school funding. In 2016-17, the City of London received £3,047 more per primary school pupil than Kingston upon Hull. In 2019 – 2020, this figured had grown to £4,907. Building better local schools, creating high-skilled and well-paid jobs and developing healthier communities must be the real outputs of economic growth if we are to truly level up the UK.