Championing policies to reverse Britain’s regional disparities
Last Friday, 4 September, I visited Liberty Steel in Stocksbridge, a site that used to employ 11,000 local people. These were sought after, highly skilled jobs, the kind that give people a sense of pride and belonging and a decent pay packet. The Paragon umbrella frame was invented in Stocksbridge, and over the years Stocksbridge steel has been exported across the globe. Today’s modern high value manufacturing plant produces some of the world’s most high-tech steels, with customers including Rolls Royce and Boeing.
“Levelling up” may be an overused slogan in Westminster but it’s a phrase that still resonates in towns like Stocksbridge.
But today that steelworks employs only 900 people, after decades of competition from cheap imported steel and high energy prices. There has been insufficient policy support from Westminster, and a lack of understanding of the importance of steel to our economy and local culture. Like many other towns in the North of England, Midlands and South Wales, what was once a thriving centre of manufacturing has been left behind and its residents expected to move to find opportunities for well paid or fulfilling work.
Places like Stocksbridge demonstrate why this Government’s commitment to level up the country is so important, and why I and 40 Conservative MPs are joining forces to champion ideas that will reverse Britain’s regional disparities and ensure that, amidst current challenges, we do not forget what is expected of us.
The Prime Minister is right when he says that talent exists everywhere, but opportunity does not. As a new Onward paper by my colleague Neil O’Brien reveals today, the UK is one of the most geographically unbalanced economies in the developed world. In Germany, just over one in ten people (12 per cent) live in areas where the average income is 10 per cent lower than the national average, in the UK the figure is more than one in three (35 per cent). In London, average income before taxes and benefits is now nearly 70 per cent higher than the rest of the UK, up from about 30 per cent higher in 1997.
This opportunity gap starts well before people enter the workplace. In Greater London, over 45 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals progressed to higher education last year, but outside the capital there were 80 local authorities where even better off pupils not on free school meals had less chance of making it to university. For a long time, politicians have worried about the centre of major cities; today it is our neglected towns we need to worry about.
Levelling up is the right focus for the economy and society, but it is also a political imperative for our party. In December, a plurality of blue collar voters — so-called C2DE voters — backed the Conservatives. The constituents in the seats we gained, such as mine, earn 5 per cent less on average than those in the seats Jeremy Corbyn retained. The Conservative Party, not Labour, is now the party of working people.
Most governments talk about boosting regional growth. Few have had much success. This time it must be different. There can be no half measures or excuses. We have to deliver on levelling up — and give places like Stocksbridge back their future.