INCOMPETENCE within the Government is leaving northern communities in chaos and risks any chance of ‘levelling-up’, according to business and community leaders.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to close the economic north-south divide when he won a landslide victory in the General Election in December.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership claims Whitehall incompetency and a centralised response to the coronavirus pandemic has failed, leaving communities across the north in chaos.

It is today launching a devolution paper calling for more powers so decisions can be made locally.

As well as health and social care, greater powers over housing, digital, employment, transport and skills are among those outlined in proposals.

Northern business and civic leaders, led by Lord Jim O’Neill, architect of the Northern Powerhouse, argue the region’s Metro Mayors, need a stronger voice.

Lord O’Neill said: “If the pandemic has made one thing clear, it is that the UK’s top-down approach, one of the most centralised in the world, simply doesn’t work. As we begin to take the first steps towards recovery, northerners and their leaders need the tools to ‘build back better’, or we can forget any chance of ‘levelling-up’.”

The paper argues progress on devolution has largely “stalled” since 2016 due to “mis-steps by former Prime Minister Theresa May”, adding that a radical shift in mindset is needed as to how decisions are made and how money is spent if real ‘levelling-up’ is to be achieved.

Devolution campaigners believe affording Metro Mayors more powers will mean money is spent by people with local knowledge, minimising mis-spent funds and finding more effective solutions to causes of the productivity crisis, like the education disadvantage gap.

There are calls not only to deepen the existing devolved powers held by Metro Mayors but extend devolution across the whole of the north, to areas not yet covered by combined authorities including North Yorkshire and Cumbria which are at top of the Governments own priority list.

The Northern Echo:

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen

Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said: “Those in London are too remote from our area to understand the local healthcare priorities across Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool. How can someone sat in Whitehall understand the health needs of someone in Hartlepool or Billingham?

“The Tees Valley deserves first-class health services and we must make sure that everyone can access them quickly and effectively.

“Devolved health powers will allow clinicians and experts to tailor budgets and priorities directly to the needs of local people and communities and improve the health and wellbeing of people who live in Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.

“I can understand the anger and despair of local people in Hartlepool who have seen services stripped away from Hartlepool University Hospital over the last few years.”

There is also a call to devolve city region infrastructure budgets for housing, transport and digital, arguing the pandemic has made the case for a high-speed broadband and 5G roll-out more apparent than ever.

In light of the looming jobs crisis, the paper proposes to specifically align the skills system with place-led economic strategies.

The idea is to ensure that there are local people able to fill jobs created across the Northern Powerhouse’s key capabilities, including advanced manufacturing, health innovation, energy and digital.

Labour’s Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham, said: “The Governments devolution agenda is a mess and more about devolving responsibilities without the funding that local government needs to make real change. It’s disastrous response to the Covid crisis demonstrates how it talks about local decision making but is still determined to control things nationally.”

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the Government is committed to levelling up all areas of the country, including through devolving money, resources and control away from Whitehall to local communities.

A spokesperson said: "The Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper will set out the Government’s plan for devolution.”