This week the prime minister wrote to the opposition leader to state she would be “examining opportunities to provide further financial support to communities that feel left behind”.
Voters in Bassetlaw, Rother Valley, Great Grimsby or Wigan may not be keeping up with every turn in the negotiations over the withdrawal agreement, but some in Westminster now see these towns as a key to unlock the parliamentary impasse created by Brexit.
It is right that the government is turning its attention to less prosperous parts of the country. The voices of people in areas locked out of economic success have been absent from the Brexit debate since the referendum.
To be effective, those voices must contribute to a long-term solution that gives places the tools they need to transform their local economy and ensure prosperity is shared more widely. Action should be driven by the need to tackle the “burning injustices” the prime minister pledged to address on taking office – not the logic of parliamentary votes.
A strategic approach to creating a country which works for everyone should start with a plan to ensure that people in across the UK can contribute to economic growth and share in its success.
EU structural funds currently go to deprived areas of the UK to lessen poverty by supporting growth and economic inclusion. After Brexit we will need our own approach. But a consultation on the government’s proposed replacement for the EU funds, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, shows no sign of materialising, despite having been promised for over a year.
The UK Shared Prosperity Fund should be part of a new deal for poorer places.
It must help deliver an economy which works for the four million workers currently locked in poverty, and those shut out of employment, whether that’s due to their skill levels, local transport, the availability of childcare, or because the jobs aren’t there. Some places have employment rates over 10 percentage points behind the national average, and for some the gap is widening.
With a sense of urgency government must bring forward plans for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund which at least matches the £2.4bn a year in total that flows to deprived communities as a result of EU structural funds. This money should be in addition to existing local growth funding and provide certainty for investment by using long-term funding cycles.
The money should be allocated based on need and targeted according to the economic measures that matter for people’s living standards: the employment rate and earnings of the least-well off.
Short-term, eye-catching projects gifted from Whitehall are not appropriate. Rather the Shared Prosperity Fund should be devolved to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and parts of England with strong governance arrangements, giving places the tools they need to start turning their economies around.
To promote inclusive growth and let places respond flexibly to local priorities, the fund should operate as a single pot. That way investments in enterprise, economic growth and good jobs can be combined with programmes to ensure that poorer people are connected to new opportunities.
The rare point of political consensus – that the discontent expressed in the 2016 referendum must be addressed – has so far been met with delay and inertia. Now we need action.
As Brexit in whatever form approaches, it is incumbent on all sides to focus their energies on delivering for those locked out of opportunity and prosperity. This requires a long-term strategy to build local economies.
Creating the Shared Prosperity Fund will allow the prime minister to tackle poverty and promote inclusive growth. It will also make good on her promise to tackle those burning injustices.
Katie Schmuecker, head of policy and partnerships, Joseph Rowntree Foundation