15 June 2021
Jesse Norman responds to a debate on the levelling-up agenda

Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, responds on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate on the levelling-up agenda which aims to ensure that everyone should have access to good jobs, good wages and good economic prospects, wherever they live.


The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, as it was to serve under your predecessor, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), when she was in the Chair. I thank her very much for stepping into the breach.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this debate. It is testimony to the importance of the issue and the breadth of the debate that he has created that so many colleagues have made interventions and speeches today—and very welcome they were, too. I am replying for the Government on behalf of the Exchequer Secretary.

My hon. Friend is right that this is a very important public issue. It has been the mission of this Government to seek to overcome geographical disparities—disparities of prosperity and of opportunity—and to do so through what we have called levelling up.

By and large, this has been a very good debate and generally good mannered. I think everyone would acknowledge that it has been a bit of a gallop, given the number of speeches, but that is testimony to the huge interest in the topic. I congratulate colleagues who have passed the conversational baton seamlessly from one to another on the vigorous and effective way in which they have put on the public record their own local concerns. I will talk a little about the wider agenda before turning to some of those contributions.

It is plain that the Government believe in the substance and the importance of levelling up. What does that mean? It will mean different things in different places, but the core idea is that everyone should have access to good jobs, good wages and good economic prospects, wherever they live, whether that be in Barnet, Birmingham, Bolton, Bristol or, indeed, Bembridge.

It is built into the energy of our society that at different parts of their lives many people will want to move to different parts of the country to seek work and opportunities, but some may not wish to do so and many will not. We want people to be able to take pride in their local areas and to see them as vibrant, exciting places to live their lives and build their livelihoods. That is at the heart of levelling up and that is why the Government announced a series of significant policy measures designed to begin a longer-term process of redressing geographical imbalances.

Those measures include, as has rightly been touched on, freeports, which are going to be an important catalyst for regional economic growth. We want them to be magnets for innovative businesses, to provide a platform to generate the greater prosperity that will revitalise each area, and to create great jobs and great economic growth.

At the Budget, the Government announced the locations of eight freeports across England, ranging from Teesside in the north-east, to the Solent, close to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. That is a potentially very significant intervention, but they are only one part of a wider picture, which is, of course, infrastructure.

Last year we published a national infrastructure strategy that contemplates £600 billion-worth of investment over the next few years—half from the private sector, half from the public sector. Very high levels of capital investment are already being made in many different areas up and down the country, including in roads, through the road investment strategy, in railway, through High Speed 2 and other works, and in many other modes of transport and activities. The transforming cities fund has done a huge amount to support cycling, walking and greener transport across the country.

That investment also includes the towns fund. One or two colleagues have been rather dismissive of the towns fund, and wrongly so. One cannot say that there has been inadequate transparency but then grumble when the details of the fund and the methodology by which the selections were made have been put on the internet for all to review or interrogate. The fund itself is turning out to be a remarkably effective and interesting way to build a holistic local platform for economic growth, because it is not something that can be dominated by local authorities. It requires voluntary and private sector leadership to work with local authorities and, in doing so, bring the best ideas to the table, build long-term pipelines, pump-primed with public money, that will, certainly in many cases, last for years. It is going to prove to have been a very important intervention.

It goes a long way, picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on the importance of supporting rural areas. I come from a rural area myself, in Herefordshire, and I am keenly aware of that. He will be aware that although many of the effects of covid will be, in some respects, negative, they will also be positive effects. People will move out of cities, often at earlier points in their lives, to conduct effective and successful careers, no longer fettered by geography as they might have been, adding new energy and vibrancy to areas that are already vibrant. That is another good thing, in many ways.

We are working on the creation of the new UK infrastructure bank, which will be an important intervention. We will announce its launch soon, but many details are already available for colleagues to look at on the internet. It is designed to act as a cornerstone investor for infrastructure projects, to partner with the private sector and local government to develop major infrastructure projects, with the twin goals of green growth and levelling up.

The bank will act across Government as a place to pool expertise, so that people can pick up the phone and get a cross-governmental view about how projects should be financed, which will itself be very important. It will prep and prepare important development work in sectors of green economic growth that we have not yet seen—for example, hydrogen for powering the next generation of transport or potentially for home heating, carbon capture and storage, and the like. About a third of the initial £12 billion in funding for the new UK infrastructure bank will be earmarked for local and mayoral authorities, which will make a huge difference. If we can, as we anticipate, then crowd in private sector investment, that will make a remarkable difference.

It is important not to talk about levelling up without mentioning some of the most important aspects of it, which are to do with skills and training. The Chamber will know about the work we have done on the lifetime skills guarantee, on employer-led skills retraining and on apprenticeships. They all point to a holistic approach, designed to tie skills and infrastructure together, with a local perspective that brings a fuller understanding of local needs to bear.

Bob Seely 

I thank the Minister for his extensive response. That brings to the fore one of the problems here. When he stood up, he said he would answer to the Exchequer section or the economic section, but who is leading? How are Government going to deal with a coherent, integrated approach that brings in everything from landscape protection to stamp duty for second home owners, to the skills and education agenda, to immediate economic progress? Who is dealing with that?

Jesse Norman 

Of course, my hon. Friend is right to point to this. In many cases, the core is going to be effective local leadership that brings the different elements together. As a Member of Parliament, he knows that the stronger towns fund has shown that energy can be brought in. For example, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government can have a view on the housing aspect of a stronger towns fund bid, and what expertise and expectation will be there. The same is true of other aspects of Government. It may be a bid with a heavy environmental component or a heavy transport component.

Government also need to be joined up. At the Treasury, I lead on the national infrastructure but on levelling up specifically it is the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), who leads—she would be here under normal circumstances, but she is in Committee at the moment. However, she and I work closely on this issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight would imagine.

I turn to some of the points that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight rightly highlighted aspects of his own bid, including East Cowes and Newport. I could not hear him talk about the development of the Isle of Wight without thinking about my own uncle Desmond, one of the founders of Britten-Norman, who designed the aircraft whose wings came off in “Spectre,” the James Bond movie, and that went skiing as a result, which was built on the Isle of Wight. Indeed, he was one of the developers of the first hovercraft, the Cushioncraft. I am well aware of the technology and the genius of the Islanders and the espoused Islanders, one of whom Desmond certainly was.

The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) mentioned the importance of local authorities. She is right about that. They have been a very important part of stronger towns fund bids. It is quite interesting when local opinion is surveyed about the public services delivered locally. Whatever one may think about the local authority funding settlement, which was very generous in the past year and before that in many cases, it has not led to a perceived reduction in public services—quite the opposite. In many local areas, public services are regarded as having gone up in quality over the past 10 years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) talked about skills. He was absolutely right and I thank him for that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke talked about the importance of women and gender equality. That was absolutely right and I salute what she said, because that is an important part of levelling up. There is some wonderful evidence from India, where they looked at the effect of women mayors and leaders in villages. It turns out that, based on the regressions that economists have done, women leaders in those contexts have been more co-operative, more effective and less prone to forms of corruption than their male alternatives. That is an important lesson that we will reflect on.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) invited Ministers to bed and breakfast —a very fine offer that will receive deep consideration in the Treasury—for which I thank him very much indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) reminded us that Stonehenge would never have been built if they had to drag the stones down the A303. I fully concur, having been more or less parked outside Stonehenge, as have many others.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) talked about the bid that he is putting in for the levelling-up fund. I congratulate him on that and encourage all Members to do that, because the levelling-up funding will be a very important national initiative. I have touched on the remarks of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. I am glad he mentioned cutting out the loophole on holiday lets, because that was important. I hope he also noticed the speed with which we acted on that, because the tax process is never an instant thing, but we have moved as quickly as we could, given the circumstances, to try to address the issue. Obviously, it has become particularly important in the context of covid.

Tim Farron 

Once the announcement was made, they did act swiftly, but I first raised the issue with the then junior planning Minister, who is now the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It took quite a long time to get to the stage where they made the announcement, but I thank the Minister anyway.

Sir Edward Leigh (in the Chair)

Minister, could you please give the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) a couple of minutes to make his closing remarks?

Jesse Norman 

I think I have 30 seconds before we get to that point.

Bob Seely 

I am very happy not to speak again.

Jesse Norman 

I will end in 26 seconds to allow my hon. Friend plenty of time to speak.

I want to engage quickly with the points made by Opposition Members. It is not paternalistic of the UK Government to wish to take a view and to support people up and down the country. It is not paternalistic of the UK Government to offer enormous support for the devolved Administrations on an agreed basis, as we have done in a time of crisis. It is non paternalistic for this country’s collective resilience to have seen Scotland through three periods of crisis in the last 15 years: the financial crisis of 2008, the fall of the oil price and most lately in covid, which might have had disastrous effects but for our collective resilience.

In answer to the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) quickly, it is not appropriate for me to accuse another Member of Parliament of hypocrisy, but I remind him that this Government are raising corporation tax from 19% to 25%. On 24 February, he himself said, in relation to the Budget and the question of corporation tax, that

“we don’t want to see tax rises—this is not the time to do that”.

I do not think he is in any position to lecture the Government about corporation tax.