The levelling up white paper is a valid piece of aspirational work. Backed with vast sums of money, much of which had already been announced, it is certainly a laudable attempt at levelling up the United Kingdom. The aims and objectives make common sense; invest in those parts of the country that are lagging and over time, reap the benefits of higher productivity across the country. So how does this affect the East of England?
Having read the executive summary, I am disappointed but not surprised to see the East mentioned only once, with a single reference to high levels of median pay in South Cambridge. Happily, there is an overview of the region within the main document. This summarises the various initiatives and investments in the East, including an initial £87m of investment through Round 1 of the Levelling Up Fund, backing five projects; and £287m of Towns Fund investment across 12 towns including in Norwich, Peterborough and Great Yarmouth. The paper also announces the new Freeport for the East of England Centred around the Port of Felixstowe and Harwich International Port.
All this is to be welcomed, but the scale of investment in the region is dwarfed by other parts of the UK, not least the £1.49bn City and Growth Deal for Scotland – a country with a similar sized population to the East of England. It is also very concerning that the government’s focus on Innovation Accelerators is not building on the Cambridge cluster to help spread the wealth across the East of England, to build on the emerging science and tech centres in Norwich and Ipswich, as well as the life science hubs along the M11. This is why a coherent plan to promote innovation in the East is needed.
The paper lauds the £96bn it commits to the Integrated Rail Plan in the North and Midlands. The big idea for the East is the East/West rail, a scheme that links Bedford and Cambridge and as yet remains unfunded. I would like to see commitment to an East/West Rail project that extends from Bedford to Cambridge, Felixstowe, and Norwich. Transport upgrades at Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Huntingdon, and Chelmsford are mentioned but the electrification of the Norwich to Cambridge, Ipswich to Cambridge and Peterborough to Cambridge lines doesn’t warrant inclusion. There is £5.7bn for improving transport schemes in England’s core cities, but neither this nor the £24bn for the countries busiest roads will be invested in the East.
I certainly welcome the inclusion of significant parts of the region in the Education Investment Areas scheme. Education in the East has suffered from funding inequality for decades, so this is a step in the right direction. We must go further to give greater prominence to intermediate and higher technical skills and to provide an education system that can deliver quality provision for those who go to university and those who do not. Industry understands that we need more flexible pathways to provide a skilled workforce for now and the future.
The white paper also recognises the need to focus on both the economic and social determinants of health as well as the intrinsic links between health, education and skills and the wider economy. This is to be welcomed by all of us advocating a health-in-all-policies approach. It is wrong that where you live can have a significant effect on your lifespan and one of the missions explicitly refers to the need to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy (HLE) between local areas. I look forward to the white paper on health disparities which will be published this year, setting out an ambition for reducing the gap in health outcomes. I hope that this paper can also consider the problems of accessing health services in rural areas.
The government should be congratulated on the deals that have been achieved to date in the East, but we must now go a lot further. It will be our overriding objective to ensure that the East of England has due attention in the mission to level up. I relish the opportunity to challenge the government on behalf of the Eastern Powerhouse, I know government can do better and I know the East deserves better.