The key issue of people, place and sustainable investment once again took centre stage at this week’s Labour Party conference at a fringe meeting on how regional infrastructure and investment can rebalance the UK, reports Andy Walker from Brighton.
Speaking at the meeting, AECOM’s cities programme leader for Europe, Andrew Jones, said that to be successful, levelling up needed better and longer devolution deals that provided more certainty to communities and business alike. Jones also highlighted the skills and resources issue, which he said were affecting local areas’ ability to bid for central government money for projects and this needed to be addressed.
Jones also spoke about the importance of better digital connectivity, which he said the pandemic had shown was now a basic essential for life. Investment in digital could open up and revitalise some of the UK’s neglected coastal towns, unlocking their potential as places where people would want to live and work instead of remaining isolated at the end of train lines and left to decline.
Another issue raised at the meeting was the real challenge facing local areas as a result of local authorities not having the skills at their disposal to bid effectively for funding which meant that they were competing with each other for consultancy expertise, which was itself in short supply. “We also need to bring the national expertise on regeneration to bear to help regions and to align transport and community investment to make a difference,” said Jones.
Also speaking at the event, co-hosted by Policy Exchange and AECOM, shadow secretary of state for transport Jim McMahon MP said that it was clear that the UK could not continue with such an imbalanced country and that things had to change. The key to addressing the current situation was a renewed focus on three key areas, McMahon said, and these were “people, place and quality public services”. McMahon said that the pan-regional political and administrative structures were not working and there was a case for looking again at organisations like the regional development agencies to help channel investment where it was needed most.
Businessman and economist John Mills gave a somewhat pessimistic assessment of the prospects for levelling up given the relatively low levels of investment in regional areas outside London. Mills said that there had been too much focus on the service sector and unless there was a renewed focus on those left behind areas by sustained investment in skilled jobs in sectors like manufacturing and engineering.
“We need to build local resilience in every town and city in the country,” said Andrew Jones. “If we start to get that right and underpin this around our transport and social infrastructure then we can really build a culture of pride in place – above all, we need to do things with people and not to them,” Jones said.