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Boris Johnson's Northern Legacy

Public Affairs

By George Thomas

Having faced MPs at PMQs for the final time, leaving the Chamber to a standing ovation from (most!) of his MPs, and, after having one last blowout at Chequers, it would appear the Big Dog’s time as top dog has come to an end. 

Surely this is concerning news for people in the north, losing a Prime Minister who classed levelling up as the "defining mission" of his Government. Whilst fairly ambiguous, the overarching aim of the slogan was to tackle regional inequality, primarily to keep those first time Tory voters in red wall seats on board. 

So, what is Boris Johnson’s legacy in the north? Will those voters in the former red wall look back fondly at their decision to put their faith in Johnson in 2019?  

The obvious place to start seems to be the numerous regeneration projects across the north that secured funding through the Levelling Up Fund, from £20m worth of investment into Liverpool’s docks to the £18.6m grant for Doncaster town centre improvements. A total of just under £1.7bn was shared between 105 towns, cities and areas in the first round of funding, a large proportion of which was allocated to the north. 

On top of this, 101 towns are currently developing proposals to share £2.4bn as part of the Towns Fund, including numerous northern towns, such as Preston, Redcar, St Helens, and Morley. A total of £2.6bn has also been allocated to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, with northern authorities receiving large allocations. 

Reforms to the Treasury’s Green Book were introduced in 2020, designed to counter bias towards public spending in the south at the expense of northern projects. Freeports have also been announced in Liverpool City Region, the Humber and Teesside. 

The intention has clearly been there. The argument can be made that tackling regional inequality is further up the political agenda now than it has ever been.  The fact remains, however, that regional disparities are still prevalent. In fact, the latest ONS figures suggest that the only parts of the UK where the economy has grown since before the pandemic are London and Northern Ireland. 

Although northern regions will benefit from these new regeneration projects, what is really needed to tackle regional inequality is investment in affordable housing; public services; tackling crime; better connectivity; culture; and true devolution – all promises made by Johnson to the people of Manchester four days after taking office. 

Reality not matching intention was probably best characterised by Johnson promising a Crossrail-esque revolution to northern rail. In reality, he cut the eastern branch of HS2, connecting the East Midlands and Leeds, and delivered a much-depleted Integrated Rail Plan which saw the original proposals for ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ altered to not include the entire cities of Hull and Bradford. 

When considering the Government’s successes, counterarguments will inevitably be made. Areas such as Blackpool and Knowsley (priority areas for the Government) would argue that their Levelling Up Fund bids should have been accepted.  

And despite changes to the Treasury’s Green Book, total public spending in the North was £16,223 per person in 2021. This is up 17% on 2019 but is below the England average which rose by 20%, and even further below the London average which rose by 25% to £19,231. 

Furthermore, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, introduced to replace EU structural funding, won’t be hitting EU levels until 2025. Despite Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region being allocated £98million and £52m respectively, this is meant to replace the £150m and £80m worth of funding they each received from the EU. 

I think it’s safe to say that Johnson’s legacy in the north has somewhat flattered to deceive. Something he’d probably agree with, with levelling up barely getting a mention in the list of his many achievements outlined – by himself – in the Sunday Express over the weekend. An indication of a sense of disappointment when it comes to his “defining mission”.  

To his credit, at least Johnson recognised the need to tackle regional inequality, with the ambition seemingly low on the priorities of the current leadership hopefuls. 

Indeed, the lack of airtime dedicated to the topic throughout the leadership election has been worrying. So much so that we may find ourselves hoping for Operation Return of the Big Dog in the North (at least until the next General Election). 

This article was originally published in Advocacy Local’s Planning and Politics Newsletter. To receive our fortnightly newsletter, subscribe here: