Living in a former coal mining area in the north of England, transport manager Steven Flynn has seen it all — unemployment, deprivation and plenty of “half-cocked” schemes promising to address the area’s woes.
Based in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, the empty shops he passes on his way to work are a daily reminder of a city desperately in need of investment and jobs.
From homeless people sheltering in the abandoned store foyers to unloved graffiti-strewn buildings with their paint peeling off, the city is one of many northern areas struggling economically, with a community desperate to believe prime minister Boris Johnson’s election promise to “level up” the nation.
Despite the city getting a share of Mr Johnson’s £3.6 billion ($4.86bn) regeneration Levelling Up Fund, father-of-two Mr Flynn can be forgiven for feeling a little sceptical about the latest political wheeze.
From the council spending thousands on its failed City of Culture bid last year to the millions spent on repaving the high street in the hope of bringing back shoppers, Mr Flynn has heard it all before.
“They’re good at tipping money down the sink,” he said. “What we want are jobs, not just high-value jobs, but manufacturing jobs and we need money spent on infrastructure to enable this to happen so people on minimum paid jobs can afford to travel to work.
“We don’t want new paving, cobbles or an ‘Angel of Wakefield’ statue, we just want long-term initiatives which will stand the test of time. They blew millions a decade ago on repaving the town centre — that didn’t work. The shops are still empty.
“We want less half-cocked ideas and money being spent on things that will actually benefit the common person on the street and help them feed their families.”
Lord Ashcroft, a prominent Conservative donor, wrote last week that the litmus for Mr Johnson and the party as a whole after the 2019 victory was two-fold. The Brexit departure from the EU was completed last year but the second half was delivering opportunity and prosperity, especially in new northern Conservative areas. This is still unfinished.
“Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential was the crisp and effective slogan of 2019,” he wrote on Conservative Home. “No one can deny that the first part was achieved in short order. We are still waiting for news on the second.”
Many northern areas suffered after coal mines were shut down
For more than a century, Wakefield relied on the mining industry, with the “black gold” keeping people in work.
But swingeing cuts under former prime minister Margaret Thatcher resulted in the closure of the pits in the 1980s as she took on the unions and turned a generation of mining families against the Conservative Party.
It was a scene replicated across the north of the country and led to mass unemployment and poverty.
It was only two years ago that one of her successors, Mr Johnson, finally managed to turn the tables with a promise to level up the country and bring back prosperity to forgotten areas. Suddenly old industrial towns like Wakefield, Bury, Bolton and Hartlepool were targets for the Conservative and some were won by the party as it picked up 45 new MPs from the area.
His levelling up agenda was intended to keep former opposition Labour voters firmly in the camp of the ruling party, but the continual postponement of the publication of the Levelling Up white paper has left many doubting it will be fulfilled.
Wakefield, a Labour seat before 2019, has been awarded £24.9 million from the Levelling Up Fund and has chosen to spend some of it on the redevelopment of its historic waterfront mills, which have stood derelict for decades.
The regeneration will see the opening of a northern branch of London’s Tileyard — one of Europe’s largest music industry cultural centres.
“It’s good they are spending money and creating high-value jobs but will these people be living here or zipping in and out — will it benefit the people already living here?,” Mr Flynn said.
“If they are spending this money, it needs to see people moving to the area so the money will cascade into the city but if people are just parachuting in from Manchester, Leeds and London then it won’t benefit us. They’ll go back to their homes and spend money elsewhere.”
For council leader Denise Jeffery, the mill project, which will be named Tileyard North, will be a “game-changer” for the city.
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” she said.
“We have huge confidence in this landmark development and the regeneration of these important historic buildings.
“Our goal is to bring jobs, investment and people from all over the world to Wakefield to enjoy what is becoming a diverse and multifunctional cultural landmark for the north.”
She has reason to be confident, as Singapore-based firm Musiio has already signed up to relocate half its workforce to the new venue.
Tileyard’s owner Paul Kempe saw potential in the mills while on a visit to the city’s renowned Hepworth Gallery and believes it will provide the north with a gateway to London.
“Our vision is that Rutland Mills will be transformational for Wakefield, in particular, but also for the wider region,” he said.
“What we want to deliver here is a creative hub with all sorts of employment opportunities, for local people and those from further afield, who will want to come here and have a chance to be able to enjoy what will be an incredibly vibrant place.
“There’s going to be an incredible linkage between what we are going to create here and what we have in London.
“It will be a gateway for people to be able to get all the benefits of coming to London, meeting the labels, producers, all of that, but without having to actually leave Wakefield.”
One of the five restored mills will house a diverse food market, while others will provide spaces for creative industries, an educational establishment, music studios and a boutique hotel.
For the creative community, the opening of Tileyard North is a positive step for the area.
“We've been punching above our weight culturally and creatively for some years now, and having Tileyard North here really validates just how amazing we are,” Sarah Cobham, director of Dream Time Creative, which runs artistic and well-being ventures in the city, told The National.
“This is a powerful and wonderful opportunity to really expand and extend the creative community already here.”
Scriptwriter Steven Busfield welcomed the news but warned the government needs to support the city in the long term.
“The north has been waiting for infrastructure and investment to catch up so it can fully realise its potential,” he said.
“Wakefield is a striking example of a city taking the lead by prioritising its creative community but this can only work if our government actually makes funding available and sustains those funds in the long term.
“I am hopeful that other businesses will follow Tileyard North's example and look at the north as somewhere that has been underserved but is full of talent.”
Councillor Darren Byford, Cabinet Member for Economic Growth, Regeneration and Property, is confident the venture will bring employment opportunities.
“Regeneration is incredibly important to the Wakefield district, where we are working with partners and investing in a wide range of projects that aim to draw investment into our city and town centres,” he told The National.
“Our goal is to enhance places so that we develop and create vibrant spaces for people to live, where businesses thrive and where visitors enjoying spending time.
“Tileyard North is very important as it will bring jobs and attract further investment as well as putting Wakefield on the map as a growing creative destination in the North.”
In addition, Wakefield is spending almost £60m on revamping its city centre and nine neighbouring towns.
Boris Johnson faces losing northern voters, recent poll suggests
The city was one of Mr Johnson’s so-called “red wall” seats which voted in a Conservative politician for the first time in 87 years in 2019.
However, recent polls suggest he will fail to win over voters in the area for a second time and Ms Cobham believes his levelling up promises are already falling short.
“The government has just slashed the levelling up fund for public transport, buses in particular, by half,” Ms Cobham said.
“The lies the Conservative Party told to create the 'red wall' are crumbling. The so-called levelling up fund to help the regeneration of Northern cities like Wakefield is a fraction of the money they have taken from council budgets over the past 15 years.”
The Institute for Government think tank says the government has spent too long dragging its feet on its levelling up promises.
“The pledge to level up the UK was one of the cornerstones of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto,” Dr Gemma Tetlow, a chief economist at the Institute for Government, said.
“The parliament is already two years old. Unless the government acts quickly to set out how levelling up works, and who will deliver it, then it will have little to show for one of its flagship pledges by the next general election.”
The Institute for Public Policy Research has just published its 2021 State of the North report which says regional disparities are widening.
“The UK is more regionally divided than ever, and we see patterns of centralisation intensifying. This benefits no region and perpetuates a highly extractive economic model. New funds such as the Levelling Up Fund are welcome — but they don’t go far enough,” it said.
“Without a long-term strategy, this risks becoming the beginning and end of levelling up. In this way, government could fail to tackle regional inequalities while also undermining political trust.
“Inequalities continue to grow and many communities in the north cannot afford to wait.”
With two thirds of government officials working on the levelling up initiative based in London, those living in the north, like Mr Flynn, are not convinced of its success.
“It’s a disgrace people living in the north, who know what is needed, are not in charge of decisions being made,” he said.
“It needs to be run from the north. How is someone in a shiny office in Whitehall going to have a clue about the issues up here?
“I’m not holding my breath, but I guess the proof will be in the pudding.”