Elizabeth Piper and David Miliken
SUNDERLAND, England (Reuters] – After Britain had left the European Union, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, and the top ministers of the United Kingdom, travelled to Sunderland, England, for a special cabinet meeting. Johnson, along with his Brexit supporters, hold special meaning for the northeast England post-industrial capital. The “Brexit City” was named after it became the first area to vote for the Leave side. It received support from nearly three quarters of Sunderland’s voters.
Johnson could use it as a talisman to reaffirm his policy of tackling regional inequality, which has been his signature since Brexit. This is a policy Johnson has used to define himself since that time: the reduction of inequalities among the wealthy areas of England and those from the northern industrial regions. Johnson describes it as “levelling-up” and that is Johnson’s key strategy to remain in power.
Johnson’s Conservative Party already has big electoral wins in the traditional Labour-voting regions of the north. The northeast elects seven new Conservative MPs in 2019. If the Conservatives succeed in levelling up, Sunderland and other places will abandon Labour, they hope.
Johnson spoke out about his goals for more police officers, nurses, soccer pitches, green technology and better transportation. He also plans to get rid of chewing gum graffiti.
Opponents of the policy claim it is populist and lacking substance. Johnson may also be trying to credit investments by other governments as well as regeneration projects already in progress. An ex-consultant to Johnson said that Johnson adopted the slogan “Levelling Up” during the 2019 election campaign. He could not convince him to abandon it, even though his aides deemed it to be meaningless.
Responding, the spokesperson for government stated that government has fulfilled its central mission. The spokesperson stated that the 4.8 billion-pound Levelling Up Fund would invest in infrastructure to improve everyday living in the UK. This includes rehabilitating town centers and high streets and upgrading local transport. It will also invest in cultural and heritage assets.
Johnson’s Conservative Party members are concerned that Johnson is compromising with its low-tax small-state ideology. Johnson has promised to improve living standards across the country and public services in central and northern England. Multiple ministers denied that the Conservative Party had departed from its core ideology.
A POLICY HOME-GROWN
A few abandoned buildings can be found near Sunderland’s River Wear. These are remnants of an older city that is rapidly becoming glass- and steel-enabled.
A Labour-dominated local council leads the regeneration of the city. It is ambitious to create smart homes using solar panels and 5G technology. There will also be new offices, hotels and restaurants. It is designed to draw more people to the city’s centre, which has been neglected for several decades.
England’s Northeast is one of the most poorest regions. It ranks 33rd out of over 300.
EU money was once available to the Northeast to assist less wealthy regions. The funds could be used for projects, such as funding a university institute for advanced manufacturing and an automotive research center. Sunderland is home to the Nissan (OTC) auto factory for more than 30 years.
Johnson’s drive to be better was not criticised by any of the officials that were interviewed. They did however emphasize that Sunderland’s revitalization is almost entirely home-grown. The team comprised local council officials, educators, philanthropists as well as creative professionals. Many of these efforts began before Johnson’s current slogan “Levelling up” was adopted.
Patrick Melia is the Sunderland council’s chief executive and has not been affiliated with any political party.
Melia sits in the new office, which was built on the site of Sunderland’s beloved Vaux brewery, which closed in 1999. Melia then lists the many local officials from education, business and culture who took time out of their busy schedules to create a vision of a neglected city.
“I’m pragmatic,” said he, shirking off the possibility that the government would take credit for the change in Sunderland. My job is to help make it happen. Although there are many people that take credit for the things I have done, I don’t do it all. It’s always a team effort so I can’t be the one doing it.
Officials in the area portray their city’s ability to win. Their mixed emotions include a mix of trepidation and pride at the possibility that Johnson might use their city as an example for others.
According to them, the amount of government investment in the Riverside site is small when compared to other investment that has been made into the area. Melia stated that there have been more than 300 million dollars of investment from the private sector in Riverside, the site where once was the brewery. Melia said that while there is no begging bowl for the government, they do not need any. “Sometimes it’s just a little funding that gives them a bit leverage.
According to the government, Sunderland has received 45 million pounds in funding for regeneration over the last year. A further 3.8million has been allocated towards 5G rollouts and infrastructure. A further 82.5million award date back to 2014. Sunderland has received more than 130million pounds in government funding, according to the government.
Johnson appointed Michael Gove, a former Conservative politician and Brexit activist, as the head of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Levelling Up Fund is a government-funded fund that has a value of 4.8 Billion Pounds. It aims to help “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects. The money will be available for spending by 2024-5. Herein lies the problem. According to a Conservative MP for Northern Deprived, which he received from Labour in 2019, his area doesn’t get money as it lacks shovel ready projects, industry or major education institution.
Others Conservative MPs claimed that they were unable to complete paperwork on time after competing with Labour-dominated local governments. This account was not directly addressed by the government. It stated only that their allocation of funds had been transparent, fair and robust, as well as our published methods and criteria.
Sunderland is home to two major assets: the Nissan car-making plant and an independent university that has restructured its curriculum in order to focus more on jobs. This includes the elimination of some arts degrees, including those in politics, history and modern languages.
Sunderland was given a boost in July when Envision and Nissan pledged to construct a battery plant. This will create 6,200 new jobs.
Johnson’s government refused to reveal how much they contributed, or the guarantee it gave to ensure the investment. But local sources have it as close to 100 million pounds. It was made possible by the approval for a new motorway that links Sunderland with Nissan.
Melia believes it will be the first in an expanding investment program. He said that the battery plant will, if everything goes according to plan, quadruple its size in time.
A university with a mission to get students into high-prestige jobs, according to David Bell its vice-chancellor, is the best example of a city on the rise.
Bell stated, “I believe it was the result of a handful of people coming together at the right moment who were completely focused on driving it forward.” I believe what you really saw was a shift to “let’s just get things done”.
The Median Hourly Pay in Sunderland has closed some gaps with Britain, rising from 80% to 88% of the national average between 2002-2017. However, it is now at 81% below the national average for 2021. According to the latest data, 40% more local workers were out of work than the national average.
Henri Murison director of Northern Powerhouse Partnership (a private funded group headed by George Osborne who was formerly Conservative finance minister) says that while the provision might “prettify high streets”, it fails to bring about real change.
Murison stated that the amount of money flowing in is very small. Murison explained that the government requires a comprehensive strategy, not one-off payments in order to fund short-term projects.
Johnson is also being criticized by the Labour Party. “Many funds are… small amounts of money that are given to certain areas and pit areas against another,” Lisa Nandy, Labour’s foreign policy chief and Wigan’s lawmaker, said.
The government’s measure of productivity is the best way to make a profit. They invest in locations that are already equipped with the investment required for a fast return.
Critics accuse the government, who sent funds mostly to Conservative areas of northern and central England, of “pork barrel politics”. The government refutes this charge. Southern England’s lawmakers also criticize the government for sending money to Conservative areas in northern and central England. They feel that they are being ignored. Johnson claims that his levelling up agenda will benefit the overheated southeast economy. The smaller, opposition Liberal Democrats threaten Conservatives in certain traditional seats in South England. Johnson is therefore very interested in Sunderland.
Three Labour MPs are currently sitting in Sunderland’s parliament. Under proposed changes to the voting boundaries, this number will drop to just two. The majority of Labour are very minor. Also, Labour is losing control of the local council.
Anthony Mullen of the Sunderland Conservatives, who is also one of three Sunderland councillors, said that “it remains quite symbolic in terms of Brexit mindset that, if you deliver Sunderland for everyone who voted for Brexit,”. I believe that Sunderland is still a strong symbol for Brexit. They are likely to target this area because people will be looking there and using it as a measuring stick.
Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Sunderland; David Milliken, London; Editing by Janet McBride