Levelling up - the way forward for Mansfield and Ashfield, or a mere soundbite?
Fears that the government’s levelling-up strategy is more of a soundbite than a policy of substance have been echoed in Mansfield and Ashfield.
A cross-party Parliamentary committee has published a report into levelling up, claiming it lacks clarity and needs to translate into coherent and specific initiatives.
In theory, the strategy means attaching as much importance, through investment and opportunity, to disadvantaged areas as other, more affluent, parts of the country.
But the report expresses disappointment at how little detail has been put forward to explain exactly what the Conservative government’s flagship policy means and how it will be delivered.
The criticism has struck a chord in this region, with Coun Jason Zadrozny, leader of Ashfield District Council for the ruling Independents group, claiming: “We are not seeing much evidence of the government keeping any of their promises about so-called levelling up.
"Every time the government commits to any spend at all, it is labelled levelling up.
"But all we see from councils is a wish-list with no guarantee of committed spend and a litany of broken promises.
"Picking up a Screwfix catalogue doesn’t guarantee that your DIY jobs will be done.
"In the East Midlands, we are suffering from systematic and chronic under-funding, compared to other parts of the UK.
"And in Nottinghamshire, we have seen a lack of spending on major infrastructure projects, especially in public transport.
"Examples of these are cancellation of the electrification of the Midland Mainline and doubt over the future of the HS2 Eastern leg to Toton.”
Frustration over the Midland Mainline was shared by Coun Stuart Richardson, portfolio holder for regeneration and growth at Mansfield District Council.
The Labour councillor said: “I have had my misgivings about some of the pronouncements the government has made about investment in the East Midlands.
"Mansfield has been bypassed for many years now, and a lot of our good jobs have gone. As a council, we have tried hard to replace them, but it has been very difficult, especially with the Covid pandemic, which has blown a hole through everything.
"Levelling up is a soundbite – just like phrases such as northern powerhouse.
"But we have not seen the end-game for this policy, so we will have to see how it pans out.”
Mansfield’s Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, who is also leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, admitted the government needed “a coherent strategy for the long term to ensure that levelling up has a genuine impact on areas of disadvantage”.
"It is also fair to say that initial work on this agenda has been in the form of pots of funding that probably aren’t joined up in the way you’d like,” he added.
"However, those funds are hugely welcome and have helped disadvantaged parts of north Nottinghamshire to the tune of more than £130 million so far, with more to come.
"This autumn, the government is bringing forward the Levelling Up White Paper that is specifically intended to tackle this issue and provide a framework for long-term plans.”
The funding Mr Bradley refers to includes more than £70 million of regeneration cash that has been allocated to Sutton and Kirkby town centres.
And Ashfield’s Conservative MP Lee Anderson was keen to remind people of other examples of investment that has been secured recently.
"If anyone wants to know about levelling up in left-behind areas, come and have a chat with me in Ashfield,” said Mr Anderson.
"Just this week, I got the green light from the government for Ashfield School and Kirkby College to be rebuilt.
"I am also hopeful that my bid for a passenger-train service through Selston will get the go-ahead.
"There have been record levels of investment for my area which show that the government is serious about levelling up.”
The Parliamentary committee that produced the critical report, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, accepted there had been gains, but questioned how “creating a more equal economy for people across the country” was being delivered and measured.
Instead, it was in danger of becoming an ‘everything and nothing policy’, whereby “every possible funding stream from government, be it about bus stops or football pitches, was labelled for levelling up”.
Back in Mansfield, the executive mayor, Labour’s Andy Abrahams, agreed that more clarity was needed.
He said: “Our aspirations require support and funding from central government, and we will continue to work closely with them.
"But we are keen to understand the government’s intention for levelling up.
"We are encouraged by recent conversations with the county council on the possibilities of joint working to achieve more for our communities.
"The need to improve the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of areas will be vital if they are to truly experience levelling up.
"We believe that devolution of power to a local level, where leaders know the communities and their needs, provides the right basis.”
Mayor Abrahams’ comments might be a nod to recent suggestions by Mr Bradley that a combined authority for the East Midlands, complete with its own mayor, might be the best way forward.
But for now, Mansfield is pressing ahead with what the mayor calls the district council’s own levelling up agenda in the shape of ‘Making Mansfield: Towards 2030’, which was adopted in 2019.
"This is an ambitious and wide-ranging strategy that provides a clear framework of policies for the delivery of council services,” said the executive mayor.
"It aims to address significant challenges in the district, such as the technology skills gap faced by employers, and health inequalities experienced by residents.
"It also aims to drive and encourage inward investment to capitalise more on the area’s strengths.
"We want to grow a vibrant and confident place which people can be proud of. We want Mansfield to be a flourishing place where people are happy, healthy and ambitious, and where they can achieve and succeed.”