This week's MP's column comes Imran Hussain, Labour MP for Bradford East

EVER since Boris Johnson stepped into Downing Street, almost every single Government press conference, interview and press release have included the phrase ‘levelling up agenda’, and it has become almost impossible for us to escape as Ministers try again and again to convince us to ignore the damage that successive Conservative governments have created in the North.

However, despite all the hype and the warm, often nonsensical, words from the Prime Minister, as flesh in the form of policy and funding is added to the bones of this so far meaningless phrase, it is clear that this agenda is just another sham, intended to convince voters across the North of England that the Government really do care about creating opportunities for people here without really actually doing anything about it.

Take for instance the levelling up fund that was announced by the Chancellor last year, with £4bn of funding by 2024 behind it. On paper it seems bold, radical, and transformative, but dig into the figures and you will quickly discover that it is anything but.

In fact, it covers just a fraction of the £15bn of cuts in Government funding between 2010 and 2020 to local councils who actually have to bid against other councils in order to even receive any funding under the scheme in the first place.

The shortcomings in this fund also become even more apparent when you dig further into the scheme, and it quickly becomes clear that this badly underfunded scheme is far from a fund to level up.

Instead, it is a fund to plug the gaps in local authority funding that have been deliberately created by the needless, reckless austerity imposed over the last decade by the very same Government who tell us they care about levelling up deprived communities.

If it could not be any clearer that this is just a ‘plug the gap fund’, many of Bradford Council’s proposals for bids for the fund are centred on previously planned projects which have existed for years, but which have been left un-started as a result of Government austerity cuts to the council’s budget.

As just one example, a new swimming pool and leisure centre at Squire Lane that I approved as Deputy Leader a decade ago, but which has remained unbuilt in this time because of Government cuts, is expected to be included in Bradford Council’s bid.

Such vital projects such as these should not need special grants from the Government to go ahead, and so if the Government really did care about levelling up and really did mean for this fund to be used to level up regions, they would not have cut funding in the first place. They would also not be forcing local councils into a position where they have to use the fund to support under-resourced key services instead.

We have also seen the Government fall short on levelling up education after they pulled the plug on the Northern Schools Strategy.

This strategy was a ground-breaking project announced in 2016, steered through with a landmark report by Bradford’s own Sir Nick Weller, and injected £20m of extra funding a year into schools across the North to boost educational attainment.

Yet despite its potential to be a real game-changer for education in Bradford and elsewhere, it has neither been seen nor heard of again once Boris Johnson stepped into Downing Street.

The fiasco over catch-up funding for education that would have benefitted children in Bradford who on average underperform pupils both across Yorkshire and England, and whose education has been badly impacted by the pandemic has also further underscored the Government’s failures in levelling up education.

Indeed, despite the impact of the pandemic on poorer pupils’ education, the Government have only seen fit to set aside £1.4bn in catch-up funding, which falls far short of the £15bn that their very own Education Recovery advisor said was needed.
In an attempt to demonstrate that the levelling up agenda is having success, Ministers may very well point to the number of civil servants that they are moving out of London into regional departmental offices across the country. However, when these regional offices are based in already well-off cities and when the decisions are still ultimately made by Ministers in London, not our elected leaders in the regions, this so-called success rings hollow.

As if to prove that decisions will continue to be made by Ministers in London against the advice and calls of leaders in the North, we have seen this week that the Government are planning to scrap the much-needed Northern Powerhouse Rail route so that they can instead continue with the HS2 route from London to Birmingham.

As a pitiful consolation prize for this London-centric project, Ministers are instead looking at an upgraded Trans-Pennine route that does not even stop in Bradford in place of the much more ambitious, much more valuable high-speed rail connection between Manchester, Bradford, and Leeds.

Promising people living in deprived areas funding that is nothing more than scraps compared to what the Government have cut from local budgets over the last decade, whilst cutting education funding and cancelling projects that would have a real, measurable impact, is proving to be the biggest sham of all.