Wakefield gives conditional thumbs-up to Sunak’s spending review

It took 87 years for the Conservatives to seize Wakefield, a cathedral city in northern England, from Labour.

And it was victory in so-called red wall constituencies such as Wakefield — seats long held by Labour — that enabled Boris Johnson to win the 2019 general election for the Tories.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak used his spending review on Wednesday to try to demonstrate that the prime minister’s election pledge to reduce regional inequalities by “levelling up” parts of the north — places like Wakefield in West Yorkshire — had not been forgotten amid the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Sunak unveiled a £4bn levelling up fund to “improve the infrastructure of everyday life” before the next election as he also told the House of Commons that the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic would raise government borrowing to a peacetime record of £394bn in 2020-21.

Wakefield once lived off coal mining, but its economy is now focused on logistics, manufacturing and retailing, and people in the pro-Brexit city are keen to see the Conservatives deliver on their promise to help the area.

Bill Barker, a retired doctor, said he doubted much would change ahead of the next election, adding: “The north has always been innovative but it is not funded proportionately with the south.”

Aftab Ahmed, a taxi driver and Labour voter, said: “We need more investment in the north. Things are very bad at the moment. I am £500 to £600 down every week.”

His takings are suffering amid England’s second coronavirus lockdown this year. And there is no obvious end in sight: Wakefield, along with the rest of West Yorkshire, is due to go into the toughest set of economic and social restrictions when the lockdown ends on December 2.

In Wakefield almost a fifth of households are on welfare benefits, with 6.5 per cent claiming unemployment support.

Bill Barker doubted much would change ahead of the next election © Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

Taxi driver Aftab Ahmed: ‘We need more investment in the north’ © Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

Mobility scooters are as common a sight as bicycles: mining and factory jobs left people with damaged lungs.

Few of those out shopping in Wakefield’s mostly rundown city centre had heard of the term “levelling up” but several business people supported the idea.

Mr Sunak’s plan for a national infrastructure bank — which will be based in the north and used to channel billions of pounds into projects — also received widespread praise. 

But Jim Anderson, head of corporate strategy at OE Electrics, a company that provides power sockets for offices, said he worried that Mr Sunak’s levelling up fund would be administered by Whitehall rather than local leaders with expert knowledge.

Chart showing how case rates and hospital pressure compare across England’s new tiers

He was, nevertheless, hopeful about the future. “There is no magic wand,” Mr Anderson said. “We are not looking for handouts and taking our destiny in our own hands.” 

Andy Turner, owner of First Choice Recruitment, said temporary recruitment was booming as the area’s food factories and warehouses got busier during the pandemic.

He praised Mr Sunak for not introducing tax rises in the spending review but accepted they would increase in the future as the government aims to stabilise the public finances. 

Katie Morris, area manager of Grinds, which has four coffee shops in Wakefield, also said she was pleased the chancellor had held off on tax rises.

But when tax increases did happen they should be targeted at online retailers, she added. “We need people to shop local, to get people back into the centre of Wakefield,” Ms Morris said.

Some of the measures in Mr Sunak’s spending review were controversial: many public sector workers face real terms cuts in their wages next year, and the chancellor also announced a reduction in Britain’s overseas aid budget.

But Gillian Emmitt, an NHS administrator in Wakefield, said she supported the move on public sector pay, which does not affect frontline health service staff. “We have got a lot of debt and I do love my job,” she added.

Alan Woodcock, a former Labour voter who supported the Brexit party at the last election, said Mr Sunak’s plan to cut development aid was justified. “We’ve got to look after our own,” he added.

The scale of the government intervention needed in Wakefield appears large.

Katie Morris said tax increases should be targeted at online retailers © Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

Gillian Emmitt: ‘We have got a lot of debt and I do love my job’ © Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

Solicitor Tim Welton said the Hepworth, a gallery dedicated to sculpture that opened in Wakefield in 2011, had attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors but few strayed into the city centre because the area in between was so shabby. “We need to link the centre together better,” he added.

Mr Welton is on a local business board that has submitted a bid for government funding to tackle the issue. “Having a Conservative MP should help,” he said. 

But Katie Town, executive director of Wakefield’s Theatre Royal, said Labour could easily win the constituency and others in the north back at the next election.

“We need real investment into our area,” she added. “Levelling up is going to have to happen quickly. Wakefield has been hit hard by the pandemic.”

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