Boris Johnson should appoint a dedicated cabinet minister for “levelling up” to deliver on his promise to boost the economy in the north and Midlands, a former head of the civil service has said.
Lord Bob Kerslake said the prime minister has provided plenty of “warm words” without any sign of an actual plan to fulfil his December election pledge.
With speculation that Johnson will reshuffle his cabinet in the new year, Kerslake and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership urged him to appoint a minister and set up a dedicated cabinet committee to ensure levelling up remains a top priority.
In February, the PM scrapped the role of northern powerhouse minister from the cabinet.
The final holder of the post, Jake Berry, has since formed the Northern Research Group (NRG) of Tory backbenchers to put pressure on Johnson and the government on the levelling up agenda.
Ahead of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spending review on Wednesday, Kerslake also called for metro mayors to be given a greater say in leading the UK’s recovery from Covid, with greater powers to boost skills in key industries like advanced manufacturing, digital and green energy.
The UK2070 Commission, which Kerslake chairs, found coronavirus had exacerbated the UK’s dependency on London and the south-east, and called for a £375bn 25-year “new deal” investment to offset the north-south divide in research, development and transport.
Ahead of an appearance before the Commons business committee on Tuesday, Kerslake said: “While we’ve seen plenty of warm words about levelling up, we still need a plan for devolution of further fiscal powers.
“Central and regional government both have a part to play in delivering this agenda.
“We need a dedicated cabinet member and committee, working alongside metro mayors across the western gateway, Midlands engine and northern powerhouse, to build a comprehensive plan for economic rebalancing.
“The UK is one of the most centralised, imbalanced developed countries in the world and this has a serious detrimental impact our ability to drive economic growth. Recovery post-Covid will only take place once we realise that.”
Northern Powerhouse Partnership director Henri Murison said: “Unlocking the north’s true economic potential through accelerating decarbonisation and the fourth industrial revolution is not only crucial to closing the north-south divide, it is essential to recovery across the whole of the UK.
“The north’s vast economic assets are still hugely underutilised but through sustained investment in sectors such as off-shore wind, hydrogen and small modular reactors, alongside targeted, locally-led skills programmes, we can build back better in some of the areas worst-hit economically by Covid.
“We need to invest in both infrastructure and people to deliver this vision, upskilling and reskilling the workforce in highly-productive industries and sustainable energies that drive economic growth across the whole of the country.”
Responding, Downing Street distanced the PM from the idea of appointing a levelling up cabinet minister.
A No.10 spokesperson said: “The prime minister would point to the fact that the entire cabinet is focused on the levelling up agenda, whether that be in terms of schools, hospitals, [or] transport.”