The Conservative Party commitment to levelling up is “dead”, Nandy declares

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Lisa Nandy has declared that the Conservative Party’s commitment to levelling up is “dead” and that it now falls to Labour to “renew the national economy so that it works for the great majority of people”.

In a speech this afternoon, the Shadow Levelling Up Secretary announced that Labour in government would establish a licensing system to tackle the issue of second homes in rural and coastal areas and put communities across the country “back in charge” by introducing new means to take ownership of local assets.

Speaking at the Forum Music Centre in Darlington today, Nandy said: “It is now widely accepted that growth is the only way out of our current crisis – this high-tax, low-growth spiral.

“Which is why every place must be able to make a contribution again. The fact that we are one of the most geographically unequal countries in the world is no longer a regional problem. It’s a national problem.”

The Labour frontbencher said the Tory leadership contest “looks set to be the final nail in the coffin” for the Conservatives’ ambition to level up the country, declaring: “Promises that were made with a bang are fading with a whimper. Half-baked ideas have barely made it into the oven.”

She added: “In short, the Tories’ commitment to levelling up is dead. But levelling up is not dead. Not for the millions who voted for change – and who need and deserve to see it delivered.

“So it falls to Labour to meet this moment: to renew the national economy so that it works for the great majority of people and share prosperity across all parts of the United Kingdom.”

Nandy said Labour would help coastal communities “take their place” by addressing the issues of digital connectivity, inward investment and poor housing and “learning the lessons from the Coastal Communities Fund to ensure those areas can shape their own future”.

She announced that Labour would “tackle the challenge of second homes” in coastal and rural areas by introducing a licensing system similar to that established under Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour government.

The First Minister has announced plans to introduce a statutory licensing scheme for all visitor accommodation, which is intended to help raise standards across the local tourism industry.

Nandy said: “With a stronger licensing system, communities will be able to reap the rewards of thriving tourism, while ending the scourge of communities becoming ghost towns when holidays end and end people being priced out of their own neighbourhoods just for homes to stand empty for months on end.”

She argued that the “best way to insulate our communities against the shocks of Tory governments and the inflation” is autonomy.

The Labour frontbencher declared: “I can today announce that Labour will put communities back in charge. With powerful new means to take ownership of assets in their communities. And the capital to generate income for the community.”

She said Labour would introduce a “powerful new Community Right to Buy” to give communities the opportunity to take control of pubs, historic buildings and football clubs that come up for sale or fall into disrepair.

Nandy explained that communities would have first refusal on assets of community value and long-term vacant high street property.

Under Labour’s plans, communities would be granted the right to buy such assets without competition and be able to force the sale of land or buildings in a state of significant disrepair. Currently, local groups only have the right to bid for assets.

Nandy added that communities would be given longer to raise the funds required to purchase such assets – increasing the deadline from six months to 12.

She announced that former chief economist of Ernst & Young Mark Gregory will lead a commission to explore how community groups can best leverage private investment to buy assets, how a fund can best support communities and what safeguards need to be put in place.

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Lisa Nandy in Darlington today.

Today, I am going to speak about the future. The future of our country. The challenges we face are profound.  Global warming is a threat to our existence. The only answer is an energy revolution that will transform our post-industrial society leaving no family or community untouched. Our economy delivers great gains for too few and nowhere near enough for the rest of us. We need a new model of economic growth to spread wealth, security and opportunity more fairly. COVID has exposed the dysfunction of the British state. Overcentralised, slow, wasteful and clunky, it requires radical reform. And the aggression of Putin’s Russia and the growing power of China highlight the fragility of the international system and Britain’s place in it. Now that we have left the EU, we urgently need a new geopolitical strategy.

These challenges are now compounded by a cost-of-living crisis that threatens to impoverish millions of us and inflation that will eat into people’s savings and spiral prices upwards. If the status quo represents the continuation of the existing state of affairs, then the only logical response is to reject it. But first we have a choice to make.  Should we walk towards these challenges and meet them, or be cowed by them and say they are too great to be solved?

The Conservative leadership contest has followed this turn. But history will be unkind to those who choose this moment to hunker down, turn inwards and simply attack their opponents, forever locking horns while the world burns. Those who, as Kennedy said, foolishly seek “personal power by riding the back of a tiger, only to end up inside”. History will be unkind to those who try to play it safe. Who know the threats we face [but] choose to pass them along to the next generation to solve.

So today I am going to speak to you about how we might go about carrying the torch forwards. My answer is Labour’s answer, “that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”. A great national effort is needed to rebuild our country so we can weather the coming storms. The challenges will test our nerve. There are no simple solutions. But I am confident we can meet them. The British people have always done so.

Two hundred years ago, a 30-year-old miner from a Northumbrian village was asked to repair a broken pump in his pit. This miner, George Stephenson, not only repaired that pump but went on to master the inner workings of the steam engine from a workshop at the back of his house. In 1825, his Locomotion No.1 became the first steam locomotive in the world to carry passengers on a public rail line, here in Darlington. It took two hours to travel the 8.7 miles to Darlington. Users of Northern Rail might reflect on how the intervening two hundred years have failed to improve much upon the speed of Stephenson’s locomotive.

But I think about Stephenson and all those who went before him as I watch the Tory leadership candidates standing up one by one putting forward increasingly desperate proposals about how they alone could solve Britain’s problems. Because social progress, like scientific progress, is built on the shoulders of giants. Our greatest moments have been national efforts, not just the preserve of a few.

There are moments when change becomes not just possible, but inevitable. I believe this is one of them. In 1945, it was unthinkable that people who served on the home front and in the war would return to the degrading poverty that characterised pre-war Britain. And the Attlee government responded by building a strong national economy of full employment and bringing public services into common ownership, embarking on the biggest programme of council house building in British history. It was a story of national renewal.

In the 1970s, when the ambitions of women, immigrant communities and working-class children far outstripped the opportunities on offer, when so many found themselves excluded from our national story, the Wilson government responded with the Equal Pay Act, the Race Relations Act and comprehensive education. It was a story of a new modernity and the white heat of the technological revolution.

But it was 1979, the year I was born, that the seeds of our current predicament were sown. When Thatcher and Reagan capitalised on a decade of unrest promising to unleash us from regulation, to allow the markets to prevail and individuals to prosper. It ushered in four decades in which more and more of the proceeds of economic growth have gone to capital rather than labour. So most people now work harder than I can remember and simply cannot make ends meet at the end of the week or month.

In some places, this has been felt particularly deeply. As China expanded, the mines, mills, factories and steelworks in towns across Britain were lost. And with them the jobs and wages that provided the basis of a decent, secure life and the sense of pride, purpose and contribution that came from this common endeavour.

This is what the promise to level up spoke to. To people in places like this incredible market town whose skill in engineering gifted Britain our railways and built bridges across the world. These are the towns across Britain that within living memory powered the country and built our wealth and influence. Who have watched as young people have left looking for opportunities and when they looked back too often found too little to return to.

With the loss of those good jobs has gone the spending power that sustained the thriving high streets, pubs, banks, post offices and bus networks, cancelled as commuter numbers fell. Secure jobs have been replaced with Amazon warehouses and agency work. Too many young people are faced with a choice between family and community, or opportunity. Too many have to get out to get on. And for so many people who are left, growing old hundreds of miles from children and grandchildren, this is their inheritance and it has been squandered.

Even the “winners” are losing. A million people make their home in London every year seeking new opportunities. I know because, 20 years ago, I was one of them. London is the region with the highest disposable incomes by a long stretch, until you factor in housing costs. And then people are worse off than in most parts of the UK, working longer hours, with lower disposable incomes, struggling with congestion, air pollution and soaring rates of poverty.

Behind this is the shocking fact that for 19 of the last 20 years only two regions, London and the South East, have had the backing and investment to pay in more than they take out. Even without soaring inflation, the pandemic and the Tories’ paper-thin Brexit deal, this fundamental weakness in the UK economy remains.  Britain is now unique: a major country that believes it can power a modern economy using only a handful of people, in a handful of sectors, in one small corner of the country. Writing off most people in most places and the contribution we have to make. This isn’t a productivity puzzle. It’s a productivity choice. And we can’t go on like this.

It is now widely accepted that growth is the only way out of our current crisis – this high-tax, low-growth spiral. Which is why every place must be able to make a contribution again. The fact that we are one of the most geographically unequal countries in the world is no longer a regional problem. It’s a national problem.

That is why I reject those southern leaders who say levelling up is an anti-London agenda as much as I reject those northern leaders who try to pit north against south. We’ve found multiple ways to pull apart in recent years. North, South. Leave, Remain. Yes and No. But a house divided cannot stand. And an economy that doesn’t draw on the resources, assets and talent in every part of the country cannot succeed. It’s time to come together and build.

The Tories won the election with a promise to do just that – to build a fairer economy and a more complete democracy. But levelling up was never going to succeed in a government dominated by Treasury orthodoxy, that believes only London and the South East have a contribution to make. It was never going to succeed in a Tory Party that believes that the so-called productivity “miracle” achieved by Thatcher in the 1980s can be recreated – but only by smashing trade unions, driving down security and standards and sweating the labour force harder.

Those voices in the Tory Party who tried to advance this agenda have been roundly defeated and now the ugly truth of this is on full display as leadership contenders vie for the mantle of Margaret Thatcher – promising tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation and more managed decline across Britain. This leadership contest looks set to be the final nail in the coffin for the Conservatives’ short-lived ambitions to level up. Promises that were made with a bang are fading with a whimper. Half-baked ideas have barely made it into the oven.

In short, the Tories’ commitment to levelling up is dead. But levelling up is not dead. Not for the millions who voted for change – and who need and deserve to see it delivered.

So it falls to Labour to meet this moment: to renew the national economy so that it works for the great majority of people and share prosperity across all parts of the United Kingdom. To achieve this and to build new industries from the ground up requires a new approach to government. A centralised, remote, bureaucratic state has turned devolution into a circus, with mayors and council leaders competing for crumbs and so often, people and places cut out of the conversation. None of the challenges that fall to us can be solved from the centre. It will take a nation.

Labour is not like other parties. We were forged from the cooperative societies, the burial societies and the trade unions and emerged as a movement, not just a party, of national purpose. “Socialism,” wrote Attlee, “is a more exacting creed than that of its competitors. It does not demand submission and acquiescence, but active and constant participation in common activities.” That is why we will restore to people three things that are ours by right: power, ownership and contribution.

It is a moral mission. 50 years ago this year, the trade unionist Jimmy Reid told a group of students in Glasgow, in what was to become one of the great speeches of the age: “I am convinced that the great mass of our people go through life without even a glimmer of what they could have contributed to their fellow human beings. This is a personal tragedy. It is a social crime.”

“Reject the rat race,” he urged the students. “A rat race is for rats.” For hundreds of thousands of men and women, young and older, who give their time to work in their local communities, improve their neighbourhoods, stand for elected office for all political parties and none, this is precisely what they have done. This is the quiet patriotism at work in every community. This sense of being part of something bigger than you are is Britain’s great untapped asset. It’s the only way to rebuild our national economy, to live in balance with nature, and to create wealth and social growth in our communities.

The building we stand in is a perfect example. So many towns across Britain have lost live music venues in recent decades – once part of the pipeline that allowed brilliant bands and musicians to emerge. So when The Forum was faced with closure, the council and the regional development agency backed the community who had stepped up to save it. Because they got behind their community, they didn’t just ensure it survived but that it thrived. When people are in the driving seat they protect and defend the things that matter – and with the right backing – build something better.

So we will do our job – providing £28bn a year every year for a decade to help you invest to create the clean energy jobs that will help us meet the climate challenge, get money back into people’s pockets and rebuild local economies. From wind in Grimsby to advanced manufacturing in Rotherham, devolving power and resources to regions to develop their unique natural assets and build on the legacy of skills. It’s why Jonny Reynolds has pledged to create at least 30,000 jobs by building three gigafactories for electric car battery production in Britain by 2025. And why Ed Miliband has set out a national insulation mission over ten years to bring Britain’s housing stock up to scratch, creating more than 70,000 jobs for the north. The road to net zero is paved with a million climate jobs and we will invest to bring them here.

For much of our country, our issues stem from four decades of deindustrialisation but for others – especially our coastal communities – this is not the only factor. These face distinct challenges; physical isolation, an older population, high levels of transience, perverse incentives that drive poorer housing, the impact of seasonal work and the ways that our holidaying has changed. These were picture-perfect postcard communities that played a crucial role in British life. We’re going to help them take their place by addressing the lack of digital connectivity, inward investment, and poor housing, learning the lessons from the Coastal Communities Fund to ensure those areas can shape their own future. So that people in our coastal and industrial towns who powered us through the last century can see their children and grandchildren power us through the next.

Because for Labour, there is no levelling up without dignity, respect and fair reward. It is why it is so utterly abhorrent to see the government demonising the people who work on our railways, in our care homes, who deliver our post and empty our bins. Who care for our families but can’t afford to feed their own. They need and deserve a pay rise. They know better than anyone that inflation, high tax and slow growth has created a crisis – pressure on our public services and pressure on people in them. So far the only response from government has been to attack our frontline workers, stick their fingers in their ears – effectively to go on strike.

But in Eastern Germany last week, I saw how different we could be if all parts of Britain were guaranteed their fair share of funding, power was held by the people and we had a  government that works with employers and trade unions – instead of attacking them, harnessing their knowledge for the good of their communities. As participants in a common venture.

So we will hand back to you the power to take decisions in your own neighbourhood. Whether it’s local control over transport and skills. Reform of compulsory purchase orders to allow communities to bring public buildings into use. Or a tourist levy for those places that want one.

We will phase out the feudal system of leasehold so people who own their own homes can take decisions about them. And close the loophole that allows landlords to let out unfit homes to vulnerable tenants who are left without care and support, claiming inflated rates of housing benefits while whole neighbourhoods go to rack and ruin. Tilting power back to those people with a stake in the outcome and skin in the game, who are in it for the long haul.

And today I can announce that we will also tackle the challenge of second homes in coastal and rural areas, introducing a licensing system like the one being introduced by my good friend Mark Drakeford in Wales. With a stronger licensing system, communities will be able to reap the rewards of thriving tourism, while ending the scourge of communities becoming ghost towns when holidays end and end people being priced out of their own neighbourhoods just for homes to stand empty for months on end.

By trusting the community, working with the community, we can find the right balance – bringing growth, jobs and income, but protecting the spirit and fabric of a community that matter so much.

Trust. It is a word too often missing in the relation between national government and communities. For us, it’s an article of faith, written into our constitution, that Labour seeks the trust of the people to govern. We know governance arrangements must reflect economic geography, transport, income levels and identity. Our promise is that the broadest menu of powers will be on offer to all, not just some. And that our door and our minds will be not just open, but hungry, for change.

You might be forgiven for thinking you’ve heard some of this before. Every opposition wants to give away power. Governments rarely do. But in the decade which led me into parliament this was what I learnt. Whether it was the children I worked with at Centrepoint, or the work to get 16 and 17-year-olds out of temporary accommodation as a Hammersmith councillor, or the alliance I forged with MPs of all parties to ensure British trade didn’t underwrite genocide against the Uyghurs in China, there is no change without consent.

This is the lesson of 13 years of Labour government – that the Sure Start conceived and funded from Whitehall doesn’t survive while the energy cooperative owned and run by hundreds of local people does. Because in the end, our best hope is each other. And that means a different sort of leadership. One that partners with the community and puts them in the driving seat.

But too often powers and rights on paper do not translate into meaningful change for lack of resources. Take Wigan Athletic. When my football club collapsed, we had the right to buy it. But only if we could find £16m in a town where average wages lag way behind the national average and many families are struggling to get by. What use are rights without the means to enforce them?

The best way to insulate our communities against the shocks of Tory governments and the inflation, which is hitting our northern towns hardest, is autonomy.  So I can today announce that Labour will put communities back in charge. With powerful new means to take ownership of assets in their communities. And the capital to generate income for the community.

I’ve seen this in action. In Hendon in Sunderland ,a group of residents had watched as private landlords had bought up housing stock, letting standards fall, pushing up rents and running down the community. With a grant from a scheme introduced by the last Labour government, since abandoned by the Tories, they took back control, buying properties to let out at reasonable rates and in good condition to local families. The revenue has allowed them to grow and bring the historic library that stands at the centre of the town back into use. And to invest in the people of Hendon. They call themselves ‘Back on the Map’ in recognition of how much they have to offer.

The right to bid for assets of community value – the pubs, historic buildings, football clubs that make up the social fabric of our places – will be replaced by a powerful new Community Right to Buy. First refusal on assets of community value, and long-term vacant high street property too, and the right to buy them without competition. With the right to force a sale of land or buildings in a state of significant disrepair. They will have longer to raise the money – 12 months rather than six – and we are following in the footsteps of the last Labour government in Scotland, which ensured land could be taken back into community hands to be used for the good of all the people, not just some.

But we’re going to do more than this too. Building on the Community Ownership Fund to ensure every community has not just a fund to draw on, but the ability to generate revenue for the community too. Labour has pledged to help 100,000 new businesses start up, and this investment in communities will help do just that. We’re providing places with an asset base which will in turn help them establish strong, sustainable community businesses.

This is the first step on the way to greater financial autonomy for our towns, villages and cities. The only conditions attached are that it must raise revenue to be used and passed down through the generations, and that it must be driven by the wishes of the community, held in common and used for the common good.

This might, for example, include investing in sources of clean energy as Labour Councils like Plymouth have done, or as Huntly Development Trust in Scotland have done, who have developed a community-owned wind farm to generate revenue which is then reinvested in town centre regeneration. It might mean investing in housing as the residents of Hendon and Perry Common in Birmingham and the East Marsh estate in Grimsby are doing, using the proceeds to rebuild their communities and the people in them.

I am delighted that Mark Gregory, the former chief economist of Ernst & Young, now visiting professor at Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent, where he grew up, has agreed to lead this work for us. Alongside communities, political and business leaders, trade unionists and academics, he will determine how community groups and private shareholders can best leverage private investment alongside government funding to buy assets; how a fund can best support communities through seed capital; and what safeguards need to be put in place so that nobody can harness our assets for their own personal gain. He will also consider how this fund can be delivered through devolved institutions to cut out the centralised bureaucracy that has beset the levelling up funds.

Because what is needed is not a Hunger Games-style grants system where we have to go cap-in-hand to Whitehall, but financial autonomy. So that our communities will no longer live or die at the whim of a Tory Chancellor who promises to level up one day and promises to govern like Thatcher the next.

Levelling up has been a hollow promise, a cover for a decade of austerity, broken promises and decay. Fixing this in the face of the challenges we now have might seem impossible. But only by drawing on the assets, talent and potential of our people, in all of our places, can we meet these challenges head on.

Kennedy once said, “we choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy but because it is hard”. This is our moment, when we match the ambition of every community across Britain and write a new chapter in our national story.  We will move forwards from a system that no longer serves us, in one of the most centralised countries in the world, where the contribution of most people has been written out and written off. To reimagine the state, smash up a century of centralisation and put power back in the hands of the people who are already rebuilding Britain.

We do this not just because we want to, not just because we believe it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the only thing to do. Only by putting people in charge will we defeat climate change, usher in a new era of national regeneration, restore trust in our political institutions and rebuild bridges across our divided nation. In short, we will rise to meet the challenge of our age and we will do it the only way that works – together.

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