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Surrey ‘Taken for Granted’ as Government Ignores County in Levelling Up Proposals

Published on: 8 Feb, 2022
Updated on: 9 Feb, 2022

By Julie Armstrong local democracy reporter

and Martin Giles

Councillors say Surrey is being “taken for granted” by the government and largely ignored in their levelling up proposals.

Cllr Tim Oliver

The long-awaited levelling up white paper published on Wednesday (February 2) invites nine areas of England to start formal negotiations to agree new county deals taking on devolved powers – but Surrey is not one of them.

Surrey County Council leader Tim Oliver had asked for a deal that included extra funding to cut car dependency, keeping all business rates raised in Surrey in the county, and taking over Local Enterprise Partnership functions and funding supporting businesses and promoting skills and apprenticeships.

Will Forster, the Liberal Democrat group leader on the county council, said it was “clearly deeply embarrassing” that “Despite the fact they are meant to have the ear of ministers, the Surrey Tories were ignored by the government.”

Cllr Will Forster

He said: “Although I am pleased Surrey is not getting the county deal proposed by the county council,” which at the time he called a “power grab”, “I do worry this issue has shown that Surrey is taken for granted by both the Conservatives and the government.

“At the last general election, Surrey elected 11 Tory MPs, two of which are in the Cabinet and yet local people have nothing to show for it.”

The areas that have been invited for a county deal are Cornwall; Derbyshire and Derby; Devon, Plymouth and Torbay; Durham; Hull and East Yorkshire; Leicestershire; Norfolk; Nottinghamshire and Nottingham; and Suffolk.

Cllr Oliver said: “There’s nothing directly for Surrey just at the moment” but he is optimistic its turn would come.

He said: “While we are not one of the first pilot areas, we will take note of progress and continue discussions with other areas and government to ensure that we are in a position to grasp any future opportunities that will have a positive impact for Surrey.

“County deals are a positive step in enabling authorities like ours to deliver solutions to those issues [including the climate emergency and the cost and quality of social care], and we would encourage the government to roll out county deals to further areas as soon as possible, alongside appropriate funding and support.

“It is also important to recognise that levelling-up must happen within local areas, rather than simply through a national lens, and that the national agenda does not come at the expense of places like Surrey.”

Angela Richardson MP

Guildford’s MP Angela Richardson defended the proposals: “The Greater South East and London are economically the most prosperous parts of the country and so there is no claim that the paper is designed to offer help here in the same way as for other regions.

“However, successful implementation of the plan will take pressure off the South East and enable housing and infrastructure to be built in other areas, relieving the constant pressure on Guildford and Waverley’s green spaces.

“In terms of support for people in Guildford, we heard from the Chancellor just a few days ago about a £9 billion package to support people across the country with bills and council tax costs. I am constantly speaking to ministers about how we can attract the social and economic infrastructure to Guildford to support people of all backgrounds and give everyone a greater share in our prosperity.”

Zoe Franklin

But Zoe Franklin the Lib Dem’s prospective Parliamentary candidate led the criticism from the non-Conservatives. She said: “The levelling up proposals are yet another empty slogan from the Conservatives in terms of both the financial benefit to local people and the ‘new powers’ being offered to councils.

“The proposals fail to recognise that while many of Surrey’s residents are very affluent there are also areas and people in our communities who are struggling. They need help right now, not over the eight-year lifetime of this project. We are already seeing local people having to choose between heating and eating, and local food banks and other support organisations are seeing an increasing need for their services. The Conservatives don’t understand and don’t have any answers.
“Also worth noting is that as part of ‘levelling up’ real-term spending on education across Surrey will drop by £561 per child (one of the highest falls in the country) which will particularly hit schools in lower-income areas and their pupils.”

Cllr Joss Bigmore

GBC leader Joss Bigmore agreed that the levelling up programme offered nothing for the county. He said: “It’s clear the ‘levelling up’ White Paper offers nothing for Surrey which is incredibly disappointing and shows the short-sightedness of the central government.

“Surrey has areas of deprivation, and inequality in our communities is growing, but it is clear we are on our own when it comes to solving these problems. Surrey is also one of just a handful of areas that provides a positive contribution to the Treasury.

“Our competition is not the North or the Midlands, our businesses compete on a global stage and we need the tools from Government to help us thrive. The White Paper should be about Levelling Up, but I fear Levelling Down will be the only consequence.

“However, government apathy towards this region is not an excuse for inaction, R4GV with the support of the Surrey County Council are forging ahead with our ambitious regeneration plans for the Borough, we will make a difference even if the Government chooses to spend out taxes elsewhere.”

Brian Creese

Brian Creese chair of Guildford Labour largely agreed: ” ‘Levelling up’ offers Surrey absolutely nothing. And it offers most parts of the country – North, South, coastal, rural or urban – nothing either.

“There are two huge misunderstandings in the Government’s approach. First, the government sees the problems as between regions, but there are parts of Leeds that are wealthier than London, Cheshire rivals Surrey in its overall quality of life while parts of the South East are desperately poor.

“This applies to Surrey where wards such as Westborough in Guildford or Walton North in Elmbridge are poor on a national scale. The other problem is that ‘levelling up’ is a great phrase but doesn’t work unless you address inequality, and for that, some of the rich are going to have to become less rich so the desperately poor can become a little less poor. The phrase ‘levelling up’ shies away from that simple reality.”

The white paper recognises that while talent is spread equally across the country, opportunity is not, and it seeks to address the imbalance in prosperity and health outcomes between regions.

Surrey may not be a top priority in terms of tackling regional inequality, with the healthy life expectancy of a girl born there today nearly 15 years longer (71.2 years) than a girl born in Sunderland (56.5 years), according to 2018 ONS data.

Rt Hon Micheal Gove MP

Michael Gove, the secretary of state leading the aspiration – himself a Surrey MP for Surrey Heath – has used Surrey as an example for other areas to aspire to when levelling up the country.

However Surrey does have its own inequalities within the county, and the relative high standard of living increases the cost of living for struggling families.

This prompted the county council last week to advocate the use of an appropriate living wage specific to Surrey.

And the inequalities within Surrey are not all about money, although there is almost certainly a connection. According to the government’s latest statistics, there is large variation of life expectancy even within Guildford Borough. Someone living in the Christchurch ward can, on average, expect to live over seven years longer than a resident of Stoke.

But there is little doubt that Surrey does not appear to fare particularly well in the initial plans outlined in the Government’s white paper.

Elsewhere in the South East region there are road upgrades and rail improvements, such as £20 million to reduce journey times on the Brighton Main Line.

None of the 101 towns across England receiving £2.4 billion from the Towns Fund – to boost the local economy, create jobs and transform public spaces – are in Surrey, though other South East towns like Crawley, Hastings, Margate, Milton Keynes and Newhaven will benefit.

The only project mentioned for Surrey is Project Gigabit, which is the government’s £5 billion mission to bring gigabit-capable broadband to 85 per cent of the UK by 2025, and Surrey is in phase two.

Gigabit broadband coverage in the South East increased from eight per cent in November 2019 to 66 per cent in January 2022, and is forecast to reach 70-80 per cent by 2025.

Cllr Paul Kennedy

Lib Dem Mole Valley district councillor Paul Kennedy tweeted: “What’s in the Govt’s much-trumpeted “Levelling Up” agenda for Surrey? Basically NOTHING.

“Tory MPs taking Surrey residents for granted yet again.

But Dorking resident Paul Elderton responded: “Are you trying to convince me that there is as much need for help in Mole Valley, Surrey as in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire? Have you ever met poverty?”

Cllr Kennedy replied: “No. Yes. Surrey may not need as much help as Stoke, but there is plenty of poverty here too.”

Before the start of the pandemic, just over 10.7 per cent of all households in Surrey – including nearly 20,000 children – were experiencing relative poverty, with an annual income of less than £20,000.

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