The Government needs to deliver a radical levelling-up agenda to keep hold of the red-wall voters who turned to the Tories in 2019, according to the chairman of the Conservatives’ Northern Research Group (NRG) of MPs.
Jake Berry told the NRG’s inaugural conference in Doncaster: “This sea-change isn’t permanent and it would be a mistake to believe it was an unconditional vote for the Conservative Party.”
He added: “Whilst people and communities in the north have been crying out for grassroots change, all Whitehall as given us is Astroturf. If levelling-up is to mean anything, it must be radical.
“That means an end to incremental government, and end to the conservation of southern privilege because, whether they like it or not, this is our new political reality.”
He outlined a three-point plan which called for a levelling-up formula for English regions on the same basis as the Barnett formula, which adjusts funding to Scotland and Wales, noting that spending in London is 15% higher per head than the UK average.
Mr Berry said: “We must end this system that prioritises investment in the south east over all other area of the country.”
The Rossendale and Darwen MP said: “A levelling-up formula wouldn’t just do that for the north. It would be like the Barnett formula, which has helped send money to the devolved nations for years.”
He said: “This is an idea from the north that can truly unite and level up our nation.”
Mr Berry said the UK “remained one of the most centralised countries in the world” and he urged the Government to adopt a “devo-max” approach to the regions, with a presumption built in that proposals from MPs, councils and business communities for further devolution would be approved.
He also said the Government needed to accelerate the movement of Whitehall functions out of London, saying the idea that key operations needed to remain in the capital had become a barrier to change.
Referring to the plan to move some Treasury functions and staff to Darlington, Mr Berry told the conference: “Instead of a Treasury based in Westminster with a northern campus, why not have Treasury based in Darlington with a campus in London – a sort of civil service Whitehall hub with government departments moved to the regions?”
He said: “The pace of change is just too slow.”
Mr Berry said devolved regions needed the power to lower taxes, pointing out that the north has an economy bigger than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – equivalent to the ninth largest economy in Europe.
He said: “In short we want to build an economy that is more Canary North and less Canary Wharf.”
The former minister criticised Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s policy of aiming for 50% of school leavers to attend university, saying it had failed Britain’s youth.
He called for academic and vocational education to have an “equal footing” and said he wanted to see new educational establishments in the north based on skills training, which he referred to as “Voxbridge”.