Boris Johnson has called for towns and counties to gain more powers over transport and the economy in order to spread wealth outwards from London to Britain’s poorer regions. In a speech in Coventry the prime minister spoke of glaring regional inequalities which affected health outcomes as well as life chances.
“Take simple life expectancy – even before Covid hit it is an outrage that a man in Glasgow or Blackpool has an average of 10 years less on this planet than someone growing up in Hart in Hampshire or in Rutland.
“Or take university entrance – if you are a child on free school meals in London you now have more than double the chance of going to university than a child on free school meals growing up outside London.
“It is an astonishing fact that 31 years after German unification the per capita GDP of the northeast of our country, Yorkshire, the East Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland is now lower than in what was formerly East Germany. ”
He said new “county deals” could offer local leaders more power over transport, skills and economic support similar to those enjoyed by metro mayors in Manchester and the East Midlands. The deals would be bespoke to the needs of individual places, but he offered few details, promising a white paper later this year.
The speech was billed in advance as an opportunity for the prime minister to flesh out his promise to “level up” Britain, but it included only a handful of specific policy announcements, such as a £50 million (€58m) fund for local football pitches and £10 million to remove chewing gum from high streets.
Although he spoke about the need to invest in parts of the country that had been neglected, Mr Johnson claimed his plan would not drain investment from richer places. He said that regenerating poorer places would ease pressure on housing and infrastructure in more prosperous parts of the country and prevent overheating.
“We don’t want to level down. We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies, we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer, and you can’t hope to stimulate growth around the country by actually constraining companies from developing as the Labour government did in the 1960s, with the ludicrous industrial development certificates,” he said.
Almost all legal coronavirus restrictions in England will be lifted next Monday and although the speed of his unlocking has faced criticism, Mr Johnson said the worst of the pandemic was probably over.
“I wish I could say that from Monday we could simply throw caution to the winds and behave exactly as we did before we’d ever heard of Covid. But what I can say is that if we are careful and if we continue to respect this disease and its continuing menace then it is highly probable – almost all the scientists are agreed on this – the worst of the pandemic is behind us.”