Today Reaction ran an episode of ‘Answer Time’ where Iain Martin interviewed a panel consisting of Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, Ross Walker the Chief UK Economist for NatWest Markets, Maggi Pagano the Executive Editor of Reaction Life and Douglas Alexander, Former Labour Cabinet Minister and now a senior fellow to Kennedy School in Harvard.
The panel had a focus on levelling up – what it means, what it actually means for Government, ideas from the panellists on areas of growth and what has been tried and failed.
Andy Street was first out of the blocks, pushing for investment in cities for the fourth industrial revolution as well as heavy investment in re-training and skills for the future. While he felt the Government could do more by offering state subsidies for development and working more with private industry, he was behind levelling up the United Kingdom and showed some of the examples happening in his area like the gigafactory, creative industries boost and green energy development. He was keen to see more R&D spending outside of London and the golden triangle.
Maggie Pagano had a real level-head on the issue though was not given much talking time She wanted to focus on bouncing back from the Covid19 crisis by rolling social care in with the NHS and reviewing pay, cutting the interest rates on student loans, ditching the apprenticeship levy, investing in further education and running competitions to build beautiful homes that people actually want.
Ross Walker came across as very confident, happy to talk about investment in the United Kingdom and that the picture is looking a bit brighter now we are leaving the pandemic. He discussed the markets not wanting fiscal tightening at the moment (hear that Chancellor!), that there was little fear of the fiscal stimulus at the moment, despite knowing much would be paid back. He recognised the Chancellor has a juggling act to balance in the medium term because he must start to consolidate and look at ways to pay off the debts…Particularly as the 2024 election approaches.
Douglas Alexander, ruefully smiling at the thought of a Labour Government in 2024, whilst appreciating the next Government will be the one making hard choices on finance was pleased the current Government are keen to level up but felt it was more akin to lip service than a realisation.
Taking shots at George Osborne’s austerity years, he felt the Labour approach would be looking for an economist that would seek to raise taxes but that such fiscal consolidation could come in time. He felt that politics and economics are currently running in different directions and this needed to be addressed. Having a few tech issues, he confirmed that boosting broadband access was certainly a good way to help level up the country.
Douglas also brought up housing, affordable housing for young workers in particular. Andy Street was in agreement with his region doubling the housebuilding across the West Midlands in the past five years. He felt more brownfield land should be used and that affordable should be based on local people’s salaries, not the local market price – interesting feedback!
The panel saw a ton of different topics squeezed into the hour, from HS2, the future of commuting, re-distribution of wealth if people worked more flexibly (eg, suit cleaning at home in the local high street rather than in the city!) and of course online businesses sucking money away from towns and high streets. Foreign policy also saw some debate with Douglas Alexander feeling the United Kingdom needed to engage more with the Biden administration.
All recognised the pandemic disproportionately affected the old in health terms but in wealth terms, the pandemic had hit the young the hardest and so the younger generation needs new support so they can bounce back along with the economy. Here is hoping some of these top rebalancing ideas actually make it into future Government policy, so the country has a real reboot nationally, not just in London or in the cities.
It was great to see the politicians across the political spectrum speaking so freely, responding to questions and yet having Iain Martin keeping them on track. I would urge you to check out their future events!