Diana Johnson – 2022 Speech on the Future of the UK

The speech made by Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, in the House of Commons on 16 May 2022.

I am delighted to speak in this Queen’s Speech debate on making Britain the best place in which to grow up and grow old. I want to focus on what my part of the country needs if we are to meet our full potential to contribute to future national prosperity, and to ensure that the people of Hull and the rest of the United Kingdom do not just survive but thrive, with strong public services and opportunities for all.

It is 12 years since the coalition Government talked of rebalancing the economy and boosting UK economic growth by taking pressure off the congested south-east. It is 10 years since Lord Heseltine’s 2012 “No Stone Unturned” report, eight years since the northern powerhouse was launched, and three years since the Prime Minister took office and re-badged the idea as levelling up. Levelling up was only recently defined in the White Paper. After 12 years, we now have 12 missions.

We all know that a growing UK economy is the key to improving standards of living, ending poverty and having well-funded public services, but we are stuck with low productivity, low growth, high inflation and high taxes. Escaping that requires a major contribution from the Humber. Hull is a freeport city with a multi-sector industrial base; it has the UK’s fastest-growing digital economy, a strong local arts sector and a great university. New maritime industries are expanding around the green energy estuary, and there are opportunities for growth, ending fuel poverty and energy security.

However, alongside those success stories, Hull has setbacks. Local unemployment remains above the national average. Hull is usually in the top five areas in the UK for deprivation. In-work poverty weakened our local economy even before the austerity decade and the cost of living crisis. Hull needs more skilled, higher-paid jobs. The Minister doing the media round this morning seems to think that those jobs are shared equally around the country, but sadly they are not. Hull has several of the 225 left-behind neighbourhoods, where physical and mental health outcomes lag considerably behind those in wealthier areas.

Raising educational standards in Hull has been challenging. Too many local youngsters are not in education, employment or training. Many of our brightest feel the need to leave to get on. Like many left behind areas, over the past decade Hull has lost not just shops, but banks, pubs, youth clubs, churches, children’s centres, police stations and post offices. Access to GPs and NHS dentists is worsening. Hull has, however, gained food banks, gambling outlets, junk food sellers and loan sharks.

Opportunities to bid for the community wealth fund will hopefully help to repair some of our depleted social infrastructure, but so far, the talk about levelling up has been unmatched by deeds. Independent research from Bloomberg and others shows that levelling up has barely started for most of the north. Indeed, the gap between it and the south-east has grown over the past decade, including, most shamefully, when it comes to life expectancy. The excuses for failure do not convince my constituents. Of course, covid and Ukraine have been economic shocks, but Ministers presented Brexit as an opportunity to boost levelling up, not another excuse for failing. We also know that crisis can create opportunities, as happened in 1945. Hull has received some levelling-up funding for our city centre sites, but it is a small proportion of the funding package required to turbocharge our regional economy, and it is nowhere near the sustained public and private investment that has transformed the London docklands over the past 40 years. It does not even replace funding lost since 2010. I always fight in this place for the people of Hull, but a fair share of not very much will not be transformative in boosting UK economic growth and increasing the opportunities that we all want to see for the people of this wonderful country.

Hull’s digital connectivity is good, but our poor road and rail connectivity hold back economic regeneration. The Government’s integrated rail plan delivers no genuine transport levelling up. Another obstacle to Hull’s progress has been Ministers’ insistence—behind the guise of devolution—on permanent, made-in-Whitehall changes in political structures, without proper local consultation, as a precondition for funding. I draw attention to the fact that London never had to make such changes before getting schemes such as Crossrail. The ambition must be to transform, not tinker. We must go beyond the rhetoric of a Medici-style renaissance—or a Victor Meldrew charter to level down next door’s conservatory.

The whole country needs a levelling-up Bill that is bold, lifting the dead hand of Whitehall bureaucracy, cutting waste and boosting investment. Only failure is unaffordable for our country.