Rishi Sunak has vowed to "keep the North front centre of my mind in all that I do" if he were to become PM in September.

The former Chancellor said he would "double down" on levelling up and identified education as a key area which could boost the region's economy.

The Richmond MP also pledged to "work with local leaders on what the future of transport looks like in the North", something which was sorely lacking when it came to the cut-price Northern Powerhouse Rail plan unveiled last year.

Read more: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss reveal pitch to the North East

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His commitment came after newspapers across the North, including The Northern Echo, united to warn the former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary not to "turn their back" on the region once in Downing Street.

It followed reports that the levelling up agenda, which was a key promise at the 2019 general election, could be shelved after Boris Johnson's departure.

The candidates, along with Labour's shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy, were invited to answer five key questions facing our region by the Northern Agenda this week. 

Read more: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss - Don't turn your back on the North

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It comes as Mr Sunak and Ms Truss prepare to debate each other at a regional hustings in Leeds, one of three events in the North to help Tory members decide who they want to back as the next Prime Minister.

All three politicians acknowledged the issues, whether child poverty or low productivity, but there was a varying level of detail when explaining how they would be addressed. 

Here's what Mr Sunak had to say in his response to the five questions.

1. What will you do to make sure the commitments made to the North by your predecessors as Prime Minister are kept?

As a Northern MP, I owe it to my constituents to ensure that the promises made to the North are kept. Frankly, every Brit, no matter where they are, should have trust in the people they elect to deliver what they promised. That’s why at the heart of my campaign is a commitment to you: if chosen to be your next Prime Minister I will do everything I can to restore your trust in politics.

Trust can take years to build, but only seconds to lose, and any Government that I lead will work night and day to earn yours, starting first with the basics - the economy, because levelling up can only go so far if the value of our investments in the North, and the cash in your pocket, is getting eaten by inflation.

We need to grip inflation because it is the single thing that will make families across the country poorer. I have a plan to do that, and once we’ve got inflation under control we will rebuild the economy.

As Chancellor I put over £100 billion towards Levelling Up, created the Levelling Up Fund which has already supported 105 projects across the country and delivered eight Freeports, including in Humberside, Liverpool and Teesside. I also set up the New Economic Campus in Darlington, moving civil servants out of London and closer to the communities and businesses they serve, providing a much needed change in perspective. If chosen as Prime Minister, I will double down on that work, with greater devolution and continued investment.

2. The average worker in the North is 50% less productive than one in London, what will you do to address this widening gap?

When we talk about productivity, we need to remember that behind the numbers are people. Yes, productivity is lower in the North than it is in the capital. To fix that we need to tool up the North to boost productivity and rebuild the economy.

First, investment. Targeted, strategic investment will be crucial to create better jobs with higher wages. I introduced the most generous business tax cut in modern British history, helping to accelerate business growth and investment - the Super Deduction. The Super Deduction was credited with shoring up business investment in these tough economic times and has helped to stimulate broadband roll-out - something we all know is crucial to closing the productivity gap.

Should I become Prime Minister, I have committed to permanently reform the tax regime to incentivise capital investment, seizing the opportunities presented to us by Brexit, and spreading this investment across our entire United Kingdom.

Second, innovation. This country has a proud history of innovation, from the light switch in Newcastle to the covid vaccine in Oxford. We need to encourage companies to invest more in research and development across the whole country, and we need to make sure the UK continues to attract the best and the brightest. The next great innovation will come from the North.

Finally, education. If we get the education of our children right today, we secure the economy of our, and their, future. That’s why we must invest in it, making sure everyone in the country has access to world-class education. We must focus relentlessly on improving standards in schools and look at how to get more children doing science and maths until they are 18, and how to make better use of technology to allow more personalised learning.

3. What will you do to address spiralling rates of child poverty in parts of Northern England?

As I have consistently shown as Chancellor, when the most vulnerable in society have needed support, I have delivered. In March 2020 when Covid took hold, I responded with the furlough scheme. When energy bills rose at the beginning of the year, I made sure that the most vulnerable had up to £1,200 in support. I also delivered a tax cut for hard working families by cutting the Universal Credit taper rate from 63% to 55%, ensuring people keep more of what they earn. As Prime Minister, I will again deliver for those that need it.

To improve prospects for our children we have to focus on our education system. Education has the power to level up the country and improve life prospects for all. It is the closest thing that we have to a silver bullet on social policy, and I believe that the best way to improve our children’s future is to focus again on the quality of education. It is fundamental to my vision for growth in the UK, and is a necessity if everyone is granted the opportunity to reach their potential. As Chancellor, I committed an additional £4.4 billion for the schools budget by 2024–25, and I will build on that work if chosen to be your next Prime Minister.

I passionately believe that we need to make sure our education system is preparing people for the world of work, making sure no one in any part of the country gets left behind. This is why I want to reform the education curriculum to make sure people are learning the necessary skills for the workplace. Only when the needs of the country’s labour market match the skills of individuals can every region in the United Kingdom prosper.

4. How far will you go to give Northern leaders control over education and skills, transport and health budgets currently held by Westminster, and will you give them more powers to raise or lower taxes to boost local economies?

This campaign is about more than who will be the leader of our next Government - it’s about who can bring our country together. We have been through a lot over the past few years, but there are more challenges to come. Education, transport and health all need a radical shakeup. I have a plan for how to do that, but the people who know how best to do that in your area are your local leaders. I believe in giving communities the power and autonomy to make their own decisions, and am a passionate supporter of devolution. That’s why my Government would give a devolution deal to anywhere in England that wanted one.

Ben Houchen, the Mayor of the Tees Valley, is a brilliant example of how Westminster and local Government can work together, to level up and rebuild the economy. In a recent visit to Teesside, I also committed to Ben’s plan to take levelling up one step further. I will look at giving local people more flexibility on post-16 education, and further flexibility on business rates for Mayors. I will also double down on the levelling up support I already delivered as Chancellor, and work with local leaders on what the future of transport looks like in the north.

5. Will you retain a government department responsible for tackling regional inequalities with a Cabinet-level Minister for whom this is their main job?

If chosen to be your next Prime Minister, I promise to keep the North front centre of my mind in all that I do. It’s what my constituents and family would expect from me. But of course, no Prime Minister can be everywhere all at once, which is why I would retain a Cabinet-level Secretary of State responsible for levelling up, who I will task with tackling regional inequalities, reuniting the country, and fueling the powerhouses of the North.

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