Unemployment in North worst since 1990s a year after Boris Johnson's 'level up' pledge

Unemployment in the North is at its worst since the mid-1990s amid “severe and growing” regional divides, a major think tank has warned, a year on from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s post-election vow to “unite and level up” the country.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA WirePrime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The Institute for Public Policy Research North (IPPR) today released its annual “health-check” of the economy of the North of England - saying it should be an “urgent wake-up call” for the Government.

The organisation has said the North is experiencing levels of unemployment not seen since 1994 - claiming that Ministers have “failed to create the conditions for a good life for everyone”.

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The damning State of the North 2020 report comes a year on this week from when Mr Johnson, following his General Election win, declared over a distant chorus of protesters outside 10 Downing Street that his Government would be “unleashing the potential of the whole country”.

Director of centre-left IPPR North, Sarah Longlands, said: “The government was elected on a promise to ‘level up’ places like the North. But one year on, they don’t have a plan to reduce inequalities between and within regions in England, and the inadequate, centrally controlled, competitive ‘levelling up fund’ announced in the spending review simply won’t cut it.

"Our regional divides are severe and growing, we face a climate emergency, and Brexit is just around the corner, so a recovery from Covid-19 that simply restores the status-quo- which has failed so many Northerners- would be unacceptable.

"We need to challenge old, reductive assumptions about our economy because they’ve failed to create the conditions for a good life for everyone in the North. In particular, we have to stop assuming that the centre knows best and commit once and for all to a clear programme of regional devolution in England. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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“If we are to build a better future, we need to focus on people, asking ‘who benefits?’ from policy decisions.

"From our research we can see that many people, particularly those in work and children, are not benefitting from them. Here in the North we can and will power up, level up, rise up together- but every moment that we don’t have the power and resources we need to do this, peoples’ lives are affected. This is a wake-up call. Is the Government listening?"

In October, 657,900 people claimed unemployment benefits in the North, a problem “especially concentrated” in cities and coastal towns with Hull, Middlesbrough and Blackpool, which are currently under Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions, among the worst affected, said IPPR.

It added that the number of jobs available is lower in the North (0.7 jobs per person) than the English average (0.74). Forty per cent of women who work in the North are paid less than the real living wage, it said, while even before the pandemic its analysis showed that around one-third of Northern children lived in poverty - about five per cent higher than the rate for the rest of England excluding London.

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A Treasury Spokesperson said: “Recovering from Coronavirus is the biggest challenge the UK has faced in living memory and we can’t shy away from the fact our national recovery will be difficult but we are totally committed to levelling up opportunities across the whole of the UK as we build back better.

“Whilst we have taken unprecedented action to protect jobs through the furlough scheme we have also taken significant steps with new investment in green technologies to create thousands of high quality jobs in the North, setting out plans for Freeports, and investing £100 billion in infrastructure to boost growth.

The Government said its new £4 billion Levelling Up fund will “support the fabric of everyday life”.

The State of the North 2020 report outlines four ‘key tests’ to measure the progress of any plan to “level up” England.

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- A fairer North: a productive, low-carbon economy that raises living standards for all.

- Better work, health, and pay: decent work and wages for people in the North which keep pace with the cost of living, and healthier, longer lives.

- A jobs-led recovery: low unemployment, greater access to job opportunities, and a reduction in child poverty.

- An empowered North: better democratic participation, representation, and trust in local and national decision-making.