Poverty in England is entrenched and it is entrenched because the people who experience it have no power to end it.
That’s the simple truth that undermines every government attempt to end poverty. You might be wondering why a police and crime commissioner is talking about this; it’s because I’m sick of seeing families forced into a poverty spiral, being victims of crime and powerless to change their situation.
I’m sick of seeing their kids trapped in poverty and enticed into crime while those that grow up with better-off parents continue to do well.
We need a new era of real devolution to change this.
If you want to see the stark evidence that decades of centralising power in London has failed the UK, look no further than the poverty we see around us.
Even before the pandemic, 4.3 million children were living in poverty – up 500,000 over the past five years. And now we know to expect to see 1.3 million more people pushed into poverty next year as bills continue to rise.
And yet there was no mention of child poverty in the levelling up white paper.
Over the last decade we’ve seen minister after minister, sitting in their Whitehall office with London-based civil servants coming up with new ideas about tackling poverty: David Cameron’s ‘big society’ and Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms to name two, both of which were a cover for cutting local services, removing the safety net and punishing the poor into ‘taking more responsibility for their lives’.
Surely it is time we handed the powers to act back to the regions living with this poverty?
The North, especially the North East, needs well-paid, high-end jobs and top-class infrastructure. But the honest truth is that jobs like this are few and far between, they aren’t coming quick enough and so far they have done nothing to end poverty.
We have in Nissan the most productive factory in the UK. We have an offshore industry that is transforming fortunes.
And that’s great.
But right now we have mums who can’t afford to give their kids a breakfast and struggle to feed them during school holidays. It is blindingly obvious that they are not going to be applying for a job in one of the fancy new science buildings that this government thinks are the answer.
If we get devolution right, maybe their kids will. But what do we do for those families now? The solution isn’t especially complicated.
If we are going to end poverty we need devolution deals that allow local leaders to create jobs locally, not just jobs for graduates, or the better off, or the privately educated. What is the point of us opening up another research centre if just a mile away there is a high street with only a bookies and a charity shop for work and people that live there that have relied on food banks for years?
Nobody would argue that green jobs, digital jobs and STEM jobs are not worthwhile, and we need to push for more. But a jobs focus that only sees STEM jobs as worthwhile is the direct result of rule from Whitehall. We will never reduce poverty if we only devolve power to meet Treasury targets.
Local councillors in the North East, in Blyth or Gateshead, can see first-hand what is needed to find good local jobs for families and a good breakfast for children. But those local decision-makers are powerless to act. Devolution and levelling up has to address this. That means handing cities and towns and rural areas the freedom to develop radical anti-poverty solutions, with the financial freedom to act on these plans. Then we’ll see more local economies strengthened, more backing for employers with a sense of community purpose and a connection to their town, more residents who take pride from a good wage at a local firm. Bringing back strong neighbourhoods is real levelling up. They reduce poverty, they drastically reduce the chance of being a victim of crime and they bring opportunity to young people who might otherwise be tempted by criminality. Until we have a national commitment to these goals, devolution and levelling up will never mean anything to the hardest hit communities.
This article first appeared on the Labour List website.