I am sure almost everyone at some stage has heard the Prime Minister talking about ‘levelling up’, rebalancing the life chances across our country. At first glance this might mean improving things, such as our public services, our town centres and our transport networks. Since heading back to Westminster, I have been focusing on exactly what this means for Stoke-on-Trent.
‘Levelling up’ is a step-change, rather than a gradual improvement; I think most people would agree that, after decades of neglect, this is what our city needs. An example of this is attracting more investment to support the more skilled, better paid jobs our communities need. We are attracting more and more businesses into our towns to create those opportunities, drawn in by the many pull factors our city has to offer. Some come to work with our materials specialists or creative designers in the pottery industry, others to work with our universities or growing digital professionals.
We have a record level of jobs in our area, but we can do much more. That is why the City Council and I are pushing to have the Ceramic Valley Enterprise Zone extended to help redevelop more derelict brownfield sites in Fenton, and why I asked the Government this week to relocate senior civil service jobs out of London to Stoke-on-Trent.
A similarly dramatic approach is needed to our town centres. We could wait for jobs growth to lead people to spend more on our high streets. However, across every high street shops are closing every day with the growth of online shopping. There is still a future for our high streets, but only if they become busy again with new uses, meeting the growing demands for both businesses and homes. Again, we are not just waiting for something to happen. I have asked the Government to make it easier for the spaces above shops to be converted into apartments and for more to be done to help encourage new uses to set up in some of the empty former retail spaces.
Finally, perhaps the best demonstration of this is in our schooling needs. I was approached by many parents last year, justifiably angry that their child had not been granted a place at their first, second, or third choice of high school. Some faced the prospect of driving miles each morning to drop their child off, before driving all the way back to go to work.
Clearly, we do not have enough places. In September, only 82% of children in Stoke-on-Trent’s got their first preferences for secondary school, compared with 92% in the rest of Staffordshire and 90% in Cheshire. Every secondary school locally is full, with 11 of the 14 in the city oversubscribed. In times gone by, this would have meant a new school run by the local authority, or extensions being added to nearby, full schools.
This is where ‘levelling-up’ comes into play. We have a capacity problem in our schools, but we also do not have enough good places. Our teachers have done a fantastic job over the last few years to boost standards, but we must go further to ensure every child in our city gets the best possible chance to succeed.
Still only half of our city’s pupils achieve a good pass grade in GCSE English and maths, compared with two-thirds nationally. Levelling-up, then, means not just more of the same approaches of the past, it means opening a brand-new free school which will create the outstanding places we need from day one.
That is why I am backing the Florence MacWilliams Academy, on part of the former Longton High School site. The Educo trust will bring provide excellence and choice for local parents, both of which have been sadly lacking in many parts of our city. This will ensure our young people are equipped with the skills they need to achieve their full potential.
I am determined to see this ‘levelling-up’ in action here in Stoke-on-Trent, and we now have a Government which is focussed on making this a reality. We must seize this opportunity and I look forward to keeping you updated in taking these plans forward over the months ahead.
This article appeared originally in The Sentinel, 27th January 2020.