Recent reflections on the handling of the Covid pandemic bring regional disparities into sharp focus. I see things from a northern perspective, as a northern MP and chair of the Northern Research Group (NRG).
The north has been subjected to longer and more severe lockdowns than any other part of the country, and our local high streets have paid a high price for Covid. It’s an unfortunate fact that not every shop reopened, and high streets across the north are seeing an increased number of vacant shops.
Fellow northern and “red wall” Members of Parliament and I want the Prime Minister to back the NRG’s High Street Plan. We need nothing short of a Northern Economic Recovery Plan, a regional economic recovery strategy that focuses on red wall communities and commits to a further year of “levelling up” funding, and has infrastructure at its heart.
With a forthcoming Budget and spending review there is also a need for a UK government Towns Fund. The most deprived areas outside of London should automatically be given a special grant as part of the Towns Fund to ensure that levelling up is an equal process across the UK. This should be combined with an expectation that local authorities will use their powers to use financial incentives, such as lower business rates, to attract businesses to the town.
We also want to see local councils work with business to introduce a ‘shop local’ discount card for your local area
We would also advocate for a Northern Growth Board, which would be an independent and private sector-led advisory board, in collaboration with the public sector, to be given a mandate to put forward ideas, policies, and initiatives to deliver growth across the north. The board would have powers to instigate projects cutting across the silos of both Whitehall and northern town halls.
There are further actions government can take now. Government investment is only part of levelling up the north. To encourage private businesses to invest in the north, the government should write off all investment against corporation tax for businesses in the north of England between now and 2025. This policy would ensure a long-term business and jobs-led recovery in the north.
The Prime Minister called for the abolition of town hall red tape in 2019 but unfortunately, this has not yet happened. Now is the time to drive this forward.
We need investment in transport infrastructure; indeed, we need a northern transport revolution. This would see the rollout of a seamless and smart ticketing system across northern towns and cities making the region better connected than ever before. Longer-term infrastructure like the Northern Powerhouse Rail should be part of a UK-wide transport plan that ensures people have access to a great transport system no matter where they live.
We also want to see local councils work with business to introduce a “shop local” discount card for your local area. Just like a club card or other loyalty card it should reward local residents who use their high street. This could be sent out every year with your council tax bill, with businesses having the chance to promote shopping locally.
High streets and local markets are the original social network. Britons have been encouraged to get out and about after Covid. Now is the time for the Prime Minister to back the great British high street and support northern MPs who want to ensure we build a better and fairer society after Covid.
What better place to start the levelling up revolution than revitalising northern high streets?