This article irst appeared in The Times on the 10th February 2022, written by Jill Mortimer, Member of Parliament for Hartlepool.

 

The Government’s Levelling Up White Paper is a far-reaching plan to unlock the potential of people and places in every part of the country in the years ahead. But as the cost of living crisis bites, it’s clear that the levelling up agenda needs to work for people in the weeks and months ahead. Alongside long-term plans and medium-term missions, we need short-term solutions to put more money in peoples’ pockets.

I know that the Government gets this. The white paper recognises that certain communities and people need greater support in the more immediate term. The policies set out by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up will begin to have visible effects, on high streets and in local communities, in the next few years.

More immediately, action is being taken to limit the impact of soaring energy prices on poorer households. Under plans announced by the Chancellor last week, millions of people in council tax bands A to D will be given rebates on their bills worth hundreds of pounds. This will be a vital financial lifeline for many of my own constituents, who do not live in expensive homes yet have been facing council tax bills of more than £2,000 a year.

By focusing on these council tax bands, the Government is ensuring that a broad range of households in modest homes are supported, including the very poorest and thousands of middle-income families. By and large, this is a demographic that deserves to reap the biggest benefits from levelling up. But why stop at a one-off payment?

The Government could and should still go further to fix one of the most outdated and unjust of all the taxes we currently have in the UK and put more money in peoples’ pockets. The absurdity of the council tax system is such that households in my own constituency currently pay out an average 1.31 per cent of their property’s value every year, while for residents of Westminster the council tax burden stands at just 0.09 per cent. In other words, council tax rates in Hartlepool are higher than they are for comparative bands in many other, and often much more affluent, areas of the country.

Even with the rebates, council tax will still be a system that favours millionaires rather than the millions. By taking bolder action to minimise the pain caused by council tax, the Chancellor would be steering the levelling up agenda towards a place where it can make a real difference to voters’ wallets today rather than in a decade’s time.

To deliver for voters in the red wall and beyond, the Government could revisit the outdated council tax banding system, which is based on 1991 prices and favours taxpayers in those areas where house prices have surged the most. This would be a much-needed step in the right direction. We should look closely at killing off council tax and replacing it with a fairer system that works for Hartlepool and the majority of the country.

In April, households are expected to see gas and electricity bills rise by 50%. This comes to about £600 for an average bill and, just like with council tax, Britain’s poorest households are set to be hardest hit. According to the Resolution Foundation, the poorest will see their energy spend rise from 8.5% to 12% of their total household budget. This is three times the proportion for the richest.

It is essential therefore that action to put more money in peoples’ pockets is at the heart of the levelling up agenda. In constituencies such as mine, many voters cannot wait until 2030 to find out how they may be better off. They are looking for answers today and the levelling up agenda needs to urgently provide them.