Boris Johnson admits UK economy was 'unbalanced' before Covid pandemic as he promotes 'levelling-up' agenda
The Prime Minister has promised to “rewrite the rulebook” and even invited ideas from the public in a speech on the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda.
Speaking at the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry on Thursday, Mr Johnson criticised the unequal quality of life in different parts of the UK.
He said: “We need to say from the beginning that, before the pandemic began, the UK had and still has a more unbalanced economy than almost all our immediate competitors in Europe.
“And when I say unbalanced, I mean that for too many people, geography turns out to be destiny.
“Take life expectancy, even before Covid hit.
“It is an outrage that a man in Glasgow or Blackpool has an average of ten years less on this planet than someone growing up in Hart in Hampshire or in Rutland.
“I don’t know what people do in Rutland to live to prestigious ages, who knows, but they do. There is glaring imbalance.
“No one believes – I don’t believe, you don’t believe – there is a basic difference in the potential of babies born across this country.
“Everybody knows that talent, energy and enthusiasm and flare are evenly spread across the UK.
“It is opportunity that is not, and it is the mission of this government to unite and level up across the whole of the UK, not just because that is morally right, but because if we fail we are simply squandering vast reserves of human capital and we are failing to allow people to fulfil their potential and we are holding our country back.”
The Prime Minister stressed the importance of business and claimed more needed to be done to get more companies in Britain.
He said: “Yes, business overwhelmingly chooses Britain for all sorts of good reasons – and it was good to see the stock market recover its edge over Amsterdam the other day – but now is the time to do even better.
“There is one final ingredient – the most important factor in levelling up, the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up – and that is leadership.
“That brings me to the crux of this argument. This country is not only one of the most imbalanced economies in the developed world, it is also one of the most centralised and those two defects are obviously connected.”
In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Johnson also hinted at extra powers to councils so they are on the same level as metro mayors.
He said: “We want local leaders to come forward, but obviously with these powers must come responsibility and accountability.
“That’s what we want to see and people taking charge of their local area, leading it, and not just seeking opportunities to point out differences between themselves and central government, but actually taking responsibility for problems and solving them with our help.”
Mr Johnson also promised to empower strong local leaders by taking a more flexible approach to devolution, invest in infrastructure and connectivity, regenerate towns and high streets, and ensure people have the skills and training to get good jobs.
Responding to the speech, the SNP accused Mr Johnson of being guilty of “meaningless, empty rhetoric”.
The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: “The fact remains that levels of poverty and inequality in the UK have risen to record levels on Boris Johnson s watch – and planned UK government austerity cuts will make this growing Tory poverty crisis even worse.
"You can't level up by making millions of people poorer, but that is exactly what will happen as a result of Tory plans to impose a public sector pay freeze and slash Universal Credit by £1,040 for six million families.
"It is now clear beyond doubt that the Tory government has absolutely no intention of building a fair recovery. The only way to keep Scotland safe from Tory cuts is to become an independent country, with the full powers needed to secure a strong, fair and equal recovery.
"Scotland is increasingly vulnerable under Westminster control. For every step we take forwards to build a more equal society, the Tories are dragging us backwards again with cuts that will wipe out the benefits of progressive SNP policies like the Scottish Child Payment."
The independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation also questioned how “levelling up” sat with cutting Universal Credit.
Foundation deputy director of policy and partnerships Katie Schmuecker said: “Can a government that intends to cut the incomes of the poorest families in just a few weeks’ time really claim to be levelling up?
"Taking money out of the pockets of households that need it most by cutting Universal Credit makes no sense at all and would suck money out of our recovery in the places that are most likely to struggle.
“Cutting Universal Credit would be a terrible mistake which would pull half a million more people into poverty. It’s not too late for the Prime Minister to change course and keep in place this lifeline which will give people across the country the chance of a better life.”
The GMB Union dismissed the speech as "vague promises".
GMB general secretary Gary Smith said: "Promises of ‘jam tomorrow’ don’t hold much hope when it’s Boris Johnson who is making them – workers and their communities need to be able to see and feel a credible levelling-up agenda by way of jobs and prosperity.
“Even if the UK Government builds these hospitals, how will they find the staff to fill them? Ministers are doing nothing to tackle the understaffing crisis in our NHS and their shameful pay cut policy for NHS staff could well turn that crisis into a catastrophe before a new brick is even laid.
“Meanwhile, vague pledges of new green jobs should come with a health warning – communities across the country over the last decade have seen the promise of a green industrial revolution amount to little more than a puddle of political snake oil.
"Our key workers need to be valued. We need stronger employment rights and the economy needs a proper industrial plan to help meet our net-zero ambitions.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady warned “we can't level up the country without levelling up at work”.
She said: “This pandemic has brutally exposed the terrible working conditions, low pay and insecurity many of our key workers face.
“But so far, there has been precious little to show for the government’s vaunted levelling up agenda. And today’s speech will do little to change that.
“With more than one million children of key worker households in poverty and 3.6 million workers stuck in insecure jobs, it’s time the government moved on from empty sound bites.
“Enough is enough. Ministers must invest in good green jobs in industries of the future, ban zero-hours contracts and give all of our key workers a pay rise.”
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