Peter Aldous writes for The Parliament Politics magazine.
Last February, the Government published its White Paper “Levelling-Up the United Kingdom”, setting out twelve targets for 2030. In December, the East of England APPG, which I Co-Chair with Daniel Zeichner MP, published a report on Levelling Up the East of England, which analysed confidence in the region to achieve these targets.
The report found there is “high” confidence in achieving three Levelling Up missions: employment and pay; research and development; and wellbeing. Meanwhile, there is “medium” confidence in achieving four of the missions: improved digital connectivity; the delivery of pride in place; reductions in crime; and widened devolution.
However, it found there is “low” confidence in the other five policy areas, many of which are those most important to the people and prospects of our region. They include improved educational attainment; more skills; better transport; longer healthy living; and more affordable housing to buy and rent.
The results of Round 2 of the Levelling-Up Fund mean that, in total, the East of England has hitherto been awarded £252.5 million. This represents the third lowest level of funding of any region, despite deep pockets of deprivation in coastal communities, urban areas and rural areas.
It would be wrong to judge Levelling Up purely on the basis of funding, but concerns exist that a lack of understanding pervades Whitehall regarding the challenges faced by many in our region, as well as the opportunities that the Government could unlock there to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom.
The East of England – with our 17 ports and airports, including two freeports and Stansted – is a gateway to the UK. If the region had a fit-for-purpose 21st Century transport system, the whole of the UK would benefit accordingly.
On the railways, it is vital that funding is provided for the improvement of the Ely and Haughley junctions. This will improve connectivity from the Felixstowe/Harwich freeport to the Midlands and the North; get freight off the busy A14; and provide additional capacity for passenger services into London.
Reinstating the four trains/hour from Liverpool Street to Stansted will help to attract investment from airlines to secure new routes to destinations such as Boston and San Francisco. It is estimated that this could deliver £95 million of new investment in the East of England.
Achieving good grades not only benefits individuals by improving their life chances and sense of wellbeing, but also enhances economic growth. However, across the region there is a level of attainment behind the level of England as a whole, reflecting that funding for East of England schools is lower than the national average.
The report’s key recommendations to propel our region are for much greater in-work education provision and participation in further education and skills; training for adults; improvements in the overall quality of training; access to training (linked to rurality and transport matters); and a better alignment with employer needs.
However, at present progress is hamstrung by a lack of revenue funding, as well as a shortage of trainers and teachers. The Government must address this.
Insufficient regard is given to the region’s increasing population, whilst we have a high percentage of elderly people resident in the area. This puts added pressure on the care sector, which is currently grappling with a workforce crisis. There are also significant health inequalities, with an increasing number of children living in poverty.
To meet these challenges, Government policies should recognise the significant population growth, ageing population and deprivation in the East of England, and ensure our region gets its fair share of overall funding based on this.
Whilst home ownership in the East of England is the highest of any English region, homes are less affordable than in the rest of the UK. In 42 out of 48 areas, average house prices are more than 8 times the median wage.
To meet this challenge, we need to build more homes across all tenures, including social housing, to meet the needs of all people – whether that be those setting up home for the first time, those starting families, those looking to “down” or to “right size” as their children leave home.
Whilst those living in the East of England would undoubtedly benefit if we achieve the 2030 targets for the 12 missions in our region, the rest of the UK will too. For example, if connectivity and transport links across the region were improved, these benefits would flow to all corners of the UK.
There is the opportunity to not only level up but to create global exemplars in sectors such as low-carbon energy and life sciences. As the “breadbasket of Britain” and the “All Energy Coast”, the East of England has a vital role to play providing food and energy security.
For the East of England to realise its full potential for the benefit of local people, and also the rest of the country, it is vital that the Government – working in partnership with the region’s local government, businesses and Strategic Transport Boards – delivers on the twelve levelling up missions.