Paving stones and promises – red wall waits for levelling up it fears will never come

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This is the government’s key agenda, an oft-repeated promise to revive and revive communities that have been feeling backward for a long time.

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At Scunthorpe, however, the present leveling appears to mean, er, paving stone.

The Lincolnshire city of 83,000 people is exactly what ministers have in mind when they speak of the need for rejuvenation: destroyed by deindustrialization in the eighties, broken by austerity over the past decade and, more recently In, marked by Covid-19.


Still, nearly two years after Boris Johnson first vowed to level the country, the only sign of action in Scunthorpe is £1m being spent on re-planting the square outside local council offices.

The Conservative-run authority says this government-funded beautification – planters have also been installed – creates a more pleasant town center, which, in turn, will increase footfall and investment.

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But not everyone is convinced. “Total waste of money,” says counselor Lorraine Yedon, a Labor member surveying the work going on today. “All the things Scunthorpe needs and they spend a million pounds on that? Tell me how will this help elevate anything?”

Similar questions are being asked in towns and cities across the Old Red Wall.

With the government promising to publish its Leveling Up white paper this autumn – and Michael Gove appointed minister for the concept in a recent reshuffle – there is a growing unease among Northern voters that any, including The Prime Minister himself included, has no idea what the word really means or how it can be delivered.

And a new poll on the eve of the Conservative Party convention in Manchester this weekend shows that most people think the government has failed to deliver on key policy.

While separate pots of money have been provided for high street facelifts and minor infrastructure upgrades, an overall strategy in action appears to be missing. Leveling Up remains, as one Tory backbencher put it, a slogan coined to “means all things to all people”.

So, exactly, what does this mean for communities like Scunthorpe, in the sharp end? And, if this white paper is to become, as some are suggesting, a defining moment in the Johnson premiership, what do voters here think should happen?

Leon Taylor

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Leon Taylor

‘The common man is feeling the prick’

Scunthorpe is known as the industrial garden town of England because of its mix of greenery and heavy works. It is certainly the only place in the country with a leisure center based on the domes of the Eden Project. Yet, despite these unique claims to fame, it has much in common with many similarly sized cities in the central and north.

Although the city was once thriving and prosperous, the past half century has not been kind. Deindustrialization saw its steelworks move from employing 25,700 people in the sixties to just 4,000 people today. “There was no family here that was not affected in any way,” says councilor Mashook Ali, whose own father worked in the giant plants.

The high street is also a shadow of what it used to be. Empty units are everywhere. Walking from the train station to the city centre, signs of degradation are visible at every turn: an abandoned hotel, closed court buildings, most obviously, perhaps, the old HMRC office, a massive three-story landmark that stands Has been abandoned for over a decade now.

“We used to have shops and discussions about nightlife and place,” says Ali, who runs Crosby Cabaz in the city. “Now, there’s almost nothing to keep people here.”

Perhaps behind all this – as well as the desire to have Brexit – the city voted in 2019 for its first Tory MP for a generation. Holly Mummy-Croft is the granddaughter of a Scunthorpe steelworker and well thought out here (she didn’t return Granthshalarequest for interview). Still, with many of his blue allies in former Labor seats, his re-election next time depends on how the level rises.

So Leon Taylor, butcher and trader at downtown St. John’s Market (opened in 2019), how’s it going?

“Has it started yet?” The 35-year-old asks in a dead tone.

Have new paving stones? “Is this it?” he asks. “Funny how it’s being done outside the council offices, isn’t it? Cute for them.”

The father-of-three specifically wants to make a point. “They keep talking about this level but then national insurance is going up, gas prices are going up, the cost of living is going up,” he says. “The common man is feeling the pinch. I feel more like leveling down. “

Talking to the people here again and again, three main issues are raised: lack of good jobs, lack of educational opportunities and lack of shops in the town center. “It’s too bad,” notes one pensioner, “I’ve started going to Grimsby.”

They keep talking about raising this level but then national insurance is going up, gas prices are going up, cost of living is going up. Common man is feeling the pinch. I feel more like leveling down

Leon Taylor, butcher and merchant of Scunthorpe

For Jill Harrison, 63, a 63-year-old educational manager who has lived in the city all her life, this is important.

“We need to modernize,” she says. “There’s no good to eat, no good coffee shops, no real independent stores. There are so many people like me, I love Scunthorpe and I want to come to town but nothing to come.” So you go out of town and your money goes with you.

How can the government or council help solve this? Accept, she says, that major chains in smaller towns are increasingly disinterested and create an environment where smaller shops can once again flourish. “Let’s do something unique here,” says the grandmother of three. “That you can’t find in Sheffield or Nottingham or Lincoln.”



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