Business leaders warn Government must ‘urgently’ publish long-delayed levelling up plans

The Government must “urgently” publish its plans to back the North and Midlands and devolve more power to mayors, employers have warned.

Business group the CBI also criticised Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s focus on “levelling up”, saying: “Levelling up is currently an ambiguous term, and in order to be a success more clarity is needed on the government’s long-term vision.”

There is still no sign of the Government’s long-awaited Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper, which was due to be published in September.

Ministers had promised the paper would set out plans to give regional mayors such as Jamie Driscoll in the North of Tyne – an area including Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumbria – more powers.

It was also due to include measures to create regional mayors in areas that don’t have them already.

And the Government was expected to use the publication of the White Paper as an opportunity to encourage other North East councils, such as Gateshead, Sunderland, South Tyneside and County Durham, to join forces with the three North of Tyne areas and agree to have a regional mayor.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced that he is to deliver a one-year spending review statement on November 25, and it’s thought that he might use this as an opportunity to provide more clarity about the Government’s plans for devolution to English regions, as well as to announce funding for major infrastructure projects.

The CBI set out its comments in a paper submitted to the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which is holding an inquiry into “levelling up” and the current structures of local and regional government in England.

It said: “Government must urgently publish its Local Recovery and English Devolution White Paper, including setting out a roadmap for the future of devolution in England, with the ambition of ensuring at least 60{4deaea03d78349d2462fb96996a246ea5d0077172a16867ed072c7a64f0a268c} of the population is covered by a devolution deal by 2025.”

The CBI warned that England needs strong local and regional bodies in order for levelling up to be successful.

It called for the Government to ensure every region of the country is represented by a “ministerial champion”, to ensure regional growth is prioritised “at the most senior levels of government and in all departments”. There used to be a dedicated Minister for the Northern Powerhouse who attended Cabinet (but was not technically a member of the Cabinet), but this role has been abolished. Instead, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps doubles as the Northern Powerhouse Minister, while Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick is the “Ministerial Champion” for the Midlands Engine, the lesser-known equivalent of the Northern Powerhouse policy, which covers both the East Midlands and West Midlands.

The CBI also called on the Government to hold a grand meeting of all regional mayors at least twice a year, ahead of major financial statements such as the Budget, and to consider future devolution arrangements.

In its own submission, the Institute of Directors, which represents smaller businesses, said that the current regional and local government arrangements are a mess.

It highlighted the Government’s decision to axe Regional Development Agencies, bodies created by the last Labour Government to grow regional economies. Instead, local councils, Combined Authorities such as the North of Tyne and North East Combined Authorities, and bodies called Local Enterprise Agencies have been expected to take on the role. But the arrangements vary across the country.

The Institute of Directors said: “With the loss of Regional Development Agencies, powers, responsibilities and funding allocations meanwhile have been differentially devolved to Local Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), and Combined Authorities, with varying central-local deals.

“The somewhat hodgepodge process of devolution so far has created a vacuum between the centralised decision making in Government departments and devolved deliberation in sub-national structures which can harm the agenda to improve regional imbalances.”

Current arrangements are largely a result of former Chancellor George Osborne’s desire to create an economic powerhouse in the North of England. As part of this, he set out to create powerful regional or “metro” mayors, mostly in the North of England but also including a regional mayor for the West Midlands and one for the West of England, including Bath and Bristol.

The Government said in July that it hoped to create more regional mayors, including in rural areas which have largely been excluded from English devolution so far.

Middlesbrough South MP Simon Clarke was the local government minister in charge at the time. He said: “This September, the government will therefore be publishing the Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper…which will lay a clear path for levelling up every region of our country.

“It will provide a roadmap for establishing a series of new mayors within the next ten years – representing the greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history.

“In our towns, cities, and rural counties, we will give local places the ability to come forward with new mayoral devolution deals which work for every community, allowing them to become masters of their own destiny.”

As noted, that was back in July. But the White Paper has not yet appeared.