14 Jul 2021

We need several ‘Big Bangs’ to truly level up

By David Harrison, founder of the Harrison Centre for Social Mobility and chairman of True Potential, and Peter Gibson, MP for Darlington. 

Trying to level up the country is an ambitious, important and achievable goal. The era of “get on your bike” is slowly giving way to a new mindset, one in which place and community are no longer traded off for opportunity and where people aren’t forced to leave their home towns to pursue careers at the top of their fields.

We believe the current debate overlooks the growth angle. Relocating government departments around the country is a great start, but what our regions need next are more foundations for growth — the kind of policies that will create the jobs and wealth that sustain communities.

To make the historical comparison, we need a series of mini Big Bangs around the country, replicating Margaret Thatcher’s success with the City of London in the mid-1980s.

Here in the northeast, a quiet revolution is underway. We have a strong education sector, enviable house prices and some promising shoots of growth. That a business like True Potential flourishes in a place like Newcastle is proof that this region can compete with London.

There is a renewed focus on the contribution that northern regions can make to global Britain. Places like Newcastle, Darlington, Sunderland and Middlesbrough are full of proud and bright people who know the potential of their communities to help power post-Brexit Britain.

That’s why it’s time to flip that narrative and realise that regions such as the northeast are the places to be — to tell the story of how positivity and aspiration are emerging in places like the Tees Valley. And of how the pandemic has provided us with a timely reminder of what we truly value: family, good friends and sense of community.

The pandemic has certainly redoubled our commitment to revitalising our region, stocking it with the good education, good homes and good jobs that make resilient communities.

The bells and whistles of London and the like will always attract a valuable cohort of global talent. What’s more, we’d be poorer without it. What we need to show is that career and family opportunity can flourish elsewhere too, as civil servants from Treasury, BEIS and DIT will shortly experience for themselves in Darlington.

Moving a key building block of the future economy, such as the proposed Advanced Research and Invention Agency, to the northeast would be game-changing and would stimulate the growth along the entire chain, reshaping the economic geography of the country for generations to come.

As we delve deeper into the worlds of remote work and technology-assisted professional services, our geographical differences and distances should not determine our economic prospects to the degree they once did.

Once, when the factory, mill or pit closed, there was often no choice but to go elsewhere. With the fourth industrial revolution we should, with the correct policy mix, be able to create good jobs in every region of Britain.

Connecting communities up and down the east coast with fast, regular and reliable services will certainly bring flexibility while opening the northeast to new investment.

In the Tees Valley, our airport has already been protected against closure with new routes to and from London Heathrow, while the government’s commitment to delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail and the eastern leg of HS2 will cut the time spent on the rails — decisively levelling up infrastructure outside of the southeast.

The more digital and physical infrastructure comes online, the more jobs will follow. And then, seizing the opportunities of leaving the EU, we will use our new-found economic freedom to drive more investment into our communities, as demonstrated by the recently-announced freeport on Teesside.

If we keep on this path, a child growing up in the northeast, after attending a good local school and achieving great results, and after going on to an apprenticeship or an excellent local university, can and should then aspire to a career in the region.

That opportunity, delivered on our doorstep by harnessing homegrown talent, aspiration, and ability is truly levelling up.

This article was first published in the Times newspaper. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/we-need-several-big-bangs-to-truly-level-up-dv7kq7pmj