2 car parks and a lick of paint – The Con of Levelling Up
I love our city and I’m proud to call Stoke-on-Trent home but that doesn’t mean that our city doesn’t have some significant challenges.
Average house prices in Stoke-on-Trent are half the UK average. Average salary levels in the City are around £32,000 which is about 18% lower than the national average.
Public Health England data suggests that life expectancy in Stoke-on-Trent is, on average, 3.5 years shorter than the national average but in some of the poorest parts of the City, that drops to almost 8.5 years shorter.
In May 2020, figures from the Office of National Statistics suggested that 2/3rds of children in our City live in poverty. Even on health funding, more money per person was allocated to Kent than Stoke-on-Trent, meaning our health system has to find a way of treating ill people in North Staffordshire in a cheaper way than the same illness would be treated in Ashford.
So when the Government announced their levelling up plans in 2020, I had high hopes that there would be a step change in the support the city was given. I hoped that levelling up would be a laser like focus on improving the day-to-day lives of people in our City if only by giving the City the same level of support and funding that other parts of the UK have enjoyed for years. Not that big an ask I think.
Which is why I found the long-awaited ‘Levelling Up’ announcement so deeply disappointing. The Government have chosen a path that leads to making a few places look nicer without really offering any immediate support to the people who live here.
Don’t get me wrong, I welcome every single penny of investment Stoke-on-Trent gets – but I remain unconvinced that the ‘levelling up’ money coming into the City will do anything to raise children out of poverty, to close the life expectancy gap or raise wages in the city to anywhere near the national average. I am sure that Tunstall Baths and Library will look lovely as swanky apartments but what long term benefit will the community of Tunstall derive from that development?
The City Council has championed that fact some of this money is being used to pay for new car parks in Hanley. But for the streets around Hanley and the people who live there, how are they levelled up by a new multi-story multi-million pound car park?
The £56million coming to the City doesn’t even seem to be destined to have its final resting place in the City. Instead, it’s a subsidy on profits for the developers. It seems that the money will flow from Westminster, into the City and just as quickly flow back out and into the pockets of big developers who see the regeneration of the City as ‘just another job’.
So how could it be different?
Well, the City Council could, if they wanted to, earmark this money and make sure it is spent within the City helping to stimulate our local economy. £56m of contracts for regeneration would employ a lot of local traders and service providers.
They in turn, employ local people, who spend their wages in local shops. It retains the wealth in the City and starts a process of ‘community wealth building’ in which we use what we have as a city to help each other rather than relying on buying in services and providers who suck our money out of the City. The City Council – and our MPs – should be mercilessly lobbying for an adult skills budget to be given to the City. We have fabulous colleges and a couple of great universities. They know how to change lives through education so let’s get them the skills budget and let them do what they do best.
With the right funding, we could start to upskill our local workforce, providing opportunities for career development, promotion and attracting new businesses to an area where they know a ready, willing and well-skilled workforce is waiting. We should also be asking for the cash given to Stoke-on-Trent to keep us healthy to be levelled up to at least the national average. Keeping us fit and healthy is, in my opinion, more important that building a car park.
Finally – and this may be for another post – public transport in the City needs to be overhauled. Creating a bus network which services the needs of the population would be a major step towards unlocking our potential and crucially would make a tangible difference to the lives of the people who live here.
Levelling up must be about improving peoples lives and their life chances, it’s levelling up communities and it’s recognising that levelling up has to be done with us, and not to us.