Are Devolution and Levelling Up the Same Thing?
January 8, 2023
“You’d better run round with the hoover then,” said Caroline, my wife, after I mentioned a photographer from the Guardian would be coming before New Year.
The photographer, Gary, was a friendly bloke. I made us a cuppa, and we chatted about his photojournalism documenting the history of British protest since 1997. Then down to business – where did he want me, and in what pose? He wanted to catch the natural light. He liked the books in the background of my home office / spare room. We took some pics in the garden. And important questions – like should I suck my stomach in? “I would in your position,” he said. Harsh, but fair.
The photos were for a profile piece following on from the recent North East devolution announcement, confirming a £4.27bn deal for a combined authority area stretching from Berwick to Barnard Castle – a lovely town with not one, but two opticians.
We’d done the actual interview the day before, over the phone. In fact, I’d submitted an opinion piece highlighting what we’ve delivered in the North of Tyne. It’s important to fly the flag of the region, and remind the rest of the UK that the North does not stop at the M62. The North East has the potential to be an economic powerhouse. If we can get the up-front investment, it pays for itself many times over.
The journalist rang me, asking could they follow it with a profile piece? So we spoke about the deal, and the future of the North East.
Levelling-up and devolution aren’t the same thing. Devolution is about moving power and budgets away from Westminster. Levelling-up is about reducing inequality. And you can’t do it on the cheap. The deal is very welcome, but it won’t give nurses a pay rise or restore our council funding. As I said, “If you’ve seen your library close and leisure centre close and now your social care is crumbling, it’s only human to see devolution as giving a fiver with one hand while taking a tenner with the other.”
As devolution deals go, it compares well against other regions. When it comes to the core investment funds, the West Midlands gets £36.5 million a year for 2.9 million people. Greater Manchester gets £30m for 2.8m people. West Yorkshire gets £38m for 2.3m people. The new East Midlands deal is £38m for 2.2m people. We’re getting £48 million a year for 2 million people. It’s the biggest fund in England despite being the fifth largest in population. As regional leaders I think we’ve done a good job for the North East. This is the only funding route available for strategic devolved investment. If the deal is rejected, the money disappears back to Treasury; they won’t divide it between our councils. The investment fund comes with other money for housing, transport and skills training, worth £1bn in total in the first three years.
The journalist wanted to check some biographical facts from Wikipedia. It’s wise to check, I told him. Caroline was looking at her phone one evening and said, “It says here you have four children.” We don’t, we have two. “Is there something you want to tell me?” Although why she was looking me up on Wikipedia I’m still not sure.
Mind you, one online source says I made “between $3 million and $5 million” from Yeezy sneakers “enough to rank as one of the biggest celebrity cashouts of all time.” Honestly, you couldn’t make it up. Oh hang on…
They were keen to go with the news line that I get on with Michael Gove. The Financial Times had rang up with same angle. I work well professionally with him, I told them, and other ministers too, that’s how you get things done. I’m there to get results for the people I represent. But I don’t share his politics.
It’s up to the media to find ways of working that serve the public good. I think politicians should answer questions directly and perhaps share a little of what makes them tick. But don’t believe everything you read on the internet. For the record, my waistline is on a need to know basis.