Published:

Kevin Hollinrake is MP for Thirsk & Malton.

What lessons on levelling up can we take from the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP)?

On the one hand, it represented record investment of £54 billion on rail and local transport in the North and Midlands, on top of the £42 billion committed for HS2 between London, the West Midlands, and Crewe. It will improve connections between many parts of the country that have traditionally been under-served and overlooked.

On the other, there were some glaring gaps that mean for many, the IRP feels like piecemeal improvement rather than delivering transformational change to give the north the infrastructure it needs to close the economic gap to the south. Nowhere was this disappointment more acute than in Bradford.

If the Government had adopted the Northern Powerhouse Rail plans, Bradford would have been a key stop on the new high-speed inter-city line, with a new through-station replacing the outdated Interchange station – where drivers have to literally walk from one end of the train to the other to “reverse” out the way they came. The station would also have been part of a mixed-use regeneration area three times larger than Canary Wharf which Arup calculated could create 27,000 much-needed jobs and generate £30bn for the local economy over a decade.

As part of the IRP, Bradford will get faster trains to Leeds, which are needed. But this will not include new track, and so will not address capacity. Most crucially of all, the plans will not create better inter-city links to Manchester and Manchester Airport – the hub airport for the North of England. That will remain a major constraint on Bradford’s economic growth, which is a problem not just for Bradford, but for us all: this is the UK’s seventh biggest city, its youngest city, and one which should be operating as a major economic driver for communities across West Yorkshire and beyond. What is good for Bradford is good for the entire region as we all benefit by the agglomeration effects of connecting the cities of the North holistically.

The Government has described levelling up as its central mission. If it is to succeed, communities in and around places like Bradford need to feel tangible, transformational benefits. Transport infrastructure is part of this, and we will continue to push for the new station and proper rail links across the Manchester-Bradford-Leeds corridor. But levelling up need not always involve spending huge sums of taxpayers’ money. Sometimes it is simply a matter of being bold and supporting innovative ideas from the very communities levelling up is designed to serve.

Bradford Council itself has done groundbreaking work which could – with government support – see it play host to the UK’s first Levelling Up Investment Area (LUIA).

LUIAs, as the council envisages them, would give local authorities permission to relax planning policy through hybrid Local Development Orders in designated development areas – but only for specific development proposals in specific development classes, such as offices for research and development, clean growth innovation, clean energy creation, creative industries or digital health, Healthcare and medical research.

The Government would provide approved LUIAs with seed-funding to get the areas off the ground, which could either be reimbursed through long-term return-on-investment or ploughed back into local infrastructure. The policy – designed to overcome long-standing problems caused by low land values – could kick-start private investments which are currently deemed unviable and therefore bring unused parcels of land back to life as thriving, sustainable employment centres.

To complete the package, I have been in dialogue with the council about whether LUIAs could include freeport-style tax incentives, such as relief from Business Rates, reduced employer NICs, or enhanced capital allowances. Bradford has already identified two sites which could operate as pilot LUIAs: Odsal and the Southern Gateway, with significant private-sector interest in the plans.

The Government should seriously consider including this policy in its levelling-up agenda, which will be fleshed out in the white paper now due early this year. It should work with the council to finesse the details, and agree a reasonable funding mechanism – whether grants, repayable loans, or land-value repayment capture – that delivers transformational change to Bradford, and value to the taxpayer. And it could announce that the UK’s first LUIA was to be launched in the city.

Bradford would thereby get reward for innovative thinking and act as a test-bed for a policy which could be rolled out to towns and cities across the UK, unlocking growth and creating the uplift in land values in a sustainable way. LUIAs could be of different sizes, and focused on different sectors, depending on local needs and economic conditions. LUIAs could be drawn up for major development sites in cities like Manchester or Leeds, or for much smaller, more sector-focused sites in smaller towns.

They would encourage local authorities to think more creatively and approach potential private-sector investors with a clearer and more appealing proposition.

Levelling up should be about encouraging and supporting good ideas, wherever they come from, in pursuit of an end of building a fairer society with opportunities for all. That means listening to local expertise and delivering what communities tell us they need – an opportunity which was perhaps missed during the IRP – and enabling communities to help themselves.

It is impossible for central Government to design levelling up solutions for every part of the country as the knowledge of how to overcome the challenges of a town or city is held locally. Levelling Up Investment Areas provide local authorities with further devolutionary powers so that local people can get on with the job of overcoming their local challenges.

Bradford presents the most transformational levelling-up opportunity in the UK, both because of its needs and because of its potential. However, LUIAs aren’t just about delivering change in Bradford. Levelling Up Investment Areas provide the Government with a new policy lever to stimulate investment in overlooked towns and cities the length and breadth of Britain.