We’ve heard a lot about levelling up over the last two years, but precious few signs of it actually happening. So I naturally welcomed the fresh commitments made in the White Paper unveiled by Michael Gove last week. Now it is vital that we see these translated at pace into action that makes a tangible difference to our poorest communities.
Iceland is a pretty good barometer of the nation, with 1,000 stores, 30,000 employees and five million customers passing through our doors each week.
Because we serve many of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods, I hear at first hand about the growing challenges too many of our customers face in feeding their families.
It is people in these forgotten and left-behind communities across the country who will suffer most from the impending, brutal cost of living squeeze as higher energy, commodity and transport costs all make their impact alongside an ill-timed National Insurance hike.
We’re doing our best to help, by freezing the price of our £1 frozen value lines and extending our Iceland Food Club ethical credit scheme, but ultimately only Government can rise to the scale of this challenge.
It’s vital that their fine words are swiftly matched by action to combat regional inequalities, and direct job- and wealth-creating investment into those areas that need it most, regardless of their current political affiliation.
So far, quite a lot of the levelling up funds seem to have been found their way into relatively affluent shire districts rather than our most run-down post-industrial areas and inner cities.
We certainly must accelerate innovation and invest to create jobs in the new green industries that we urgently need to develop if we are to meet the Government’s target of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. I shudder for the future of our children if we fail to meet this crucial goal of decarbonising our economy and restoring nature.
But some of the change that we desperately need is much simpler and cheaper than building new battery gigafactories or high-speed rail links.
Access to jobs, regardless of where we live, is absolutely crucial to breaking the current link between geography and destiny.
At Iceland, we are eager to open more stores that would create new jobs, enhance consumer choice, breathe new life into moribund areas, give a much-needed boost to civic pride, and enable us to pay more tax. But we are hamstrung by a malfunctioning planning system that imposes huge delays in securing the necessary approvals.
Almost every new store we want to open is delayed by difficulties in obtaining planning permission. In Derry/Londonderry, we are trying to invest £1.2 million to open a new Food Warehouse store on an established retail park, creating 30 new jobs. So far our planning application has been mired in the system for 18 months, and I am told that it could well take another year before it is finally determined.
That is an extreme example, but long delays are common right across the UK. In Tonbridge, where we now have the opening of a new Food Warehouse store scheduled for this summer, the go-ahead was secured only after two separate planning applications and an appeal, together taking up almost a full year.
In Exeter, our landlord submitted a planning application for a new Food Warehouse in July last year, to which we are still awaiting a response.
I could go on …
It is only fair to acknowledge that the Government has already taken action to simplify the planning process on the high street, so as to encourage investment and economic activity there. But retail parks, where the expansion of our chain of larger Food Warehouse stores is focused, are subject to a myriad of historical restrictions, making the planning process complex and encumbered with red tape.
Critically, the council planning departments that have to pick their way through this mess are massively under-resourced, leading to long delays and significant unnecessary expense for applicants for planning permission.
If Michael Gove simply ensured that council planning departments across the UK were properly resourced, he could break this logjam at a stroke: allowing us and many other successful businesses to expand, employ more people, pay more tax and so add to overall national prosperity. If he could also extend the simplification of planning rules from high streets to retail parks, so much the better.
Covid has wrecked two years of all our lives, and undermined too many of the promises made in the 2019 election. The Levelling-Up White Paper surely represents the last chance this Government will have to make a real difference to those most in need of their help.
They simply must not fail to deliver. And the reform and proper resourcing of local authority planning provides a great opportunity for an easy win to kickstart economic growth in so many parts of the UK.