Questions surround the Government's levelling up agenda, what it will include and how it will be delivered after weeks' of delays to its white paper.

Writing exclusively in today's Northern Echo, Jonathan Walker, policy director at the North East England Chamber of Commerce, says the Government must fix the rising levels of deprivation, poor health and education in the North East.

"The Chamber has been talking about levelling up long before it ever found itself to be the latest in-vogue political idea (and I fear we may end up talking about it long after attention as moved elsewhere).

The need to close economic gaps between regions is self-evident. For too long places such as the North East have not achieved their economic potential while investment and policy decisions have tended to favour more affluent areas.

While money has started to flow into the region through devolution, town deals, civil service relocation etc., we are yet to see a big, coherent strategy that challenges the whole of Government to rethink how it does economic development.

Understandably, Covid was something of a distraction for Government and is at least partly to blame for us not yet seeing the contents of the Levelling Up White Paper.

But, if anything, the pandemic has only amplified the importance of levelling up. At time of writing, the North East has seen the second highest number of cases and deaths per 100,000 people of anywhere in the country (behind only the North West).

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While the causes of this are complex, at a basic level the evidence of lower life expectancies, higher levels of deprivation and health inequalities are plain for all to see.

It is things like this that any levelling up strategy must seek to fix.

Why would a business group care about this? Because the benefits of any new job-creating schemes or investments will be severely limited if local people are unable to take advantage of them.

Because the pool of talent available to our businesses is reduced in size by factors that prevent people from accessing employment.

Because our public services end up being so stretched by these challenges that they cannot support wider economic aspirations.

So while the white paper must absolutely address the big gaps in our infrastructure, support inward investment and back crucial regeneration schemes, it must also recognise that improving education, health and long term unemployment are equally important to our businesses.

It must enlist the whole of Government, not just one department, while also empowering local communities and businesses to determine what their area needs and create a system where economic gaps between regions are simply no longer tolerated."

  • Jonathan Walker is the policy director at the North East England Chamber of Commerce, the region's largest membership organisation, representing around 3,000 businesses.