Mick Whitley, the Member of Parliament for Birkenhead, said he hoped the visit by the Levelling Up Minister, Michael Gove, to his constituency would alert him to the real problems the town faces.
It was apparently a flying visit because the local press was informed that due to his “diary commitments”, the Minister was unable to face scrutiny by local reporters. The Birkenhead MP commented, “I think that is a pity because I am sure that local people would have liked to read what he has to say about quite how he plans to level up a left-behind town like Birkenhead.”
The Minister has agreed to meet with Mick and other Wirral MPs after the coming recess of Parliament. And Mick’s message to him will be the same – you cannot cut services to the most deprived communities to the bone and level up at the same time. Levelling up will be a meaningless piece of sloganeering to the people of Birkenhead who are looking at the prospect of closed libraries, leisure centres, swimming pools and reductions in key services for young people and children.
Birkenhead is home to two of the poorest wards in the country – Rock Ferry and Bidston and St James. It is part of a Council that is facing a funding gap of almost £20 million in the coming budget. Its residents have endured maximum council tax rises and parking charges. Its industrial base has been savaged and its claimant count is soaring upwards.
Mick Whitley greeted the much-publicised white paper on levelling up with scepticism. “I have heard a lot of chatter from the Tories, “said Mick, “about helping towns and communities that have been overlooked or forgotten. But they weren’t overlooked at all. They were prime targets for the Tories during its decade long age of austerity.
“Labour councils were hounded as wasteful, and their budgets and services were slashed. Their social services, their children’s centres and nurseries, their libraries and leisure centres were shut down to pay off the debts that the bankers had incurred in the financial crash.
“For Wirral Borough Council this meant that the £260 million grant to assist with the provision of vital services in 2010 was down to £37 million by 2020. This was vicious, vindictive and has meant that the services that my constituents rely on have been vandalised beyond recognition.
“A real levelling up strategy would put the money lost back into the coffers of these councils. If the Government did this Wirral wouldn’t be facing a funding gap of up to £20 million and the threat of yet more cuts to the most deprived areas of my town.
“A real levelling up strategy would mean investing serious money in new industries – green industries that could create well-paid jobs in our region and help us tackle climate change. Yet there is not a penny for such projects.
“A real levelling up strategy would address the crisis in education where spending per pupil in schools has fallen year on year. This fiscal barbarism played havoc with the lives of a generation.
“To give one example of many, at Cathcart Street Primary School there was a fall in spending of one hundred and seventeen thousand pounds, equating to a reduction of six hundred and twenty-five pounds per pupil.
“How is handing more power and influence to multi-trust academies in the hands of the private sector going to level that inequality up?
“Let’s be clear, the damage done to working-class communities during the last 12 years was not because the Tories overlooked towns like Birkenhead. It was because they didn’t care about them. And my concern is that without cash to bring about inward investment, jobs, a thriving local economy, and services restored to the pre-2010 levels, levelling up, like so many of Johnson’s policies, will be empty of content.
“While I was unable to meet Mr Gove during his surprise visit to my constituency, I will be meeting him in the next few weeks to press home the case for new money for my town and others like it to match the rhetoric in the White Paper.”