The Coronavirus pandemic has hit Barnsley and South Yorkshire hard. We’ve seen worryingly high rates of infection, hospitalisation and residents losing their lives. Our regional economy has been ravaged. The level of people claiming unemployment-related benefits is now higher than any time since the mid-1990s when we were still in the aftermath of the pit closures. As I set out in the debate I led in Parliament last week, the brutal reality is that the North is now on course for levelling down, not levelling up. However, we have the raw materials at our fingertips to create a better economy, not just for our region, but for the whole of the UK.
I recently had the pleasure of supporting the virtual launch of Digital Media Centre 02 – part of the new digital campus right at the heart of Barnsley’s town centre regeneration – a project that, as Mayor, I’ve invested over £2 million in Local Growth Fund resources into. DMC 02 sits at the cutting edge of the green, high-skilled economy that we want to build it is pivotal to enabling digital business to start up, grow and thrive. When we talk about investment and levelling-up, it’s organisations like DMC 02 that will help drive our economic recovery and renewal.
Here in South Yorkshire we are stood by ready to be levelled up. Since I was elected Mayor, we’ve created or protected 15,000 jobs; our pioneering Working Win programme has helped 6,000 people back to work; we’ve leveraged £319 million in investment for vital projects and unlocked more than £100m for regeneration opportunities. We’ve committed £5.5 million of our own funds to kickstart nine ‘shovel ready’ flood prevention projects. Just this week, we agreed a further £72 million in investment to enable our region to build back better from the Coronavirus pandemic. In short, we’re putting our skin in the game and laying down a challenge for the Government to do their bit, rather than waiting for them to take the initiative. It’s a real demonstration of the impact devolution in action can have on people, communities and regional economies.
We need the Government – elected on a manifesto commitment of levelling up – to put their money where their mouth is. Aside from the one-off Stronger Towns Fund – that is spread all around the country and its allocation was described as ‘politically motivated’ by Parliament’s cross-party Public Accounts Committee – the overall picture is one of tinkering around the edges, rather than delivering the transformative changes we need. The moment to change this is the forthcoming Spending Review. In the current crisis, it’s understandable the Government are carrying out a modest one-year review. But that must not become an excuse to delay the transformative investment we need if levelling up is to really mean something.
Levelling up isn’t simply about making the Northern economy bigger – it’s about making it better. My ambition is for the North to be stronger, greener, and fairer, with no return to the failed status quo of the last forty years. We are now standing at the precipice; we face both a moment of profound crisis, and one of immense opportunity. I cannot believe this country, or this Government, has so forgotten its ambition that they would accept the waste, inequality and division we now see. But if we are to deliver the change our communities are crying out for, then the moment to act is now.
This article was originally published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 20 November 2020.