Despite Boris Johnson’s talk of a ‘levelling up agenda’, with more investment pledged to northern towns and cities, the reality seems to have fallen short. In fact, disparities in willingness to resettle recently displaced Afghan refugees between councils in the North and South of England appear to have widened that divide yet again.
Councils in the North of England have faced underinvestment from central government for decades. Many Conservative MPs were elected in northern constituencies under the proviso by Boris Johnson that the North would receive the same amount of political and financial attention as the South.
As such, former Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, announced just before the Covid-19 pandemic that Yorkshire and the Humber councils would receive an extra £275m in funding in 2020/21. However, these headline-catching numbers fail to hit the mark, as this injection of cash only covers approximately half of the shortfall in council funding in the region, dating back to austerity cuts in 2010.
It is important to note that it is not only that councils in the North are suffering the long-term effects of austerity: cracks in infrastructure, healthcare and education are also beginning to show here more than in southern council areas. Council resources are being stretched thinner in Yorkshire in particular, due in part to a large number of Afghan refugees being resettled in the region.
This geographical disparity in refugee resettlement in England dates back further than the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Figures obtained from the Home Office show that northeastern councils in England have the highest resettlement rate since 2014 (taking in 70 refugees per 100,000 people), whereas London has the lowest in that period (13 refugees per 100,000). The city of Bradford has taken in the most refugees of all English councils over that period, with 635 refugees.
The argument has been made that London is already facing an overcrowding crisis and that northern cities have more space to expand, but how can councils possibly accommodate an influx of refugees when prolonged underinvestment in the North means that resources are already stretched to breaking point?
The concern for Yorkshire councils is that Afghan refugees may be the straw to break the camel’s back, especially when southern councils are yet to commit to taking in more refugees. A total of £17m of central government funding is also to be shared around all welcoming councils to help resettle the refugee families.
However, such funding will do little to ease the financial struggle of northern councils. All 15 Yorkshire councils have committed to welcoming Afghan refugees, but their compassion is not currently being echoed by many southern councils, who appear less willing to stretch their budgets in a similar fashion.
The two Afghan refugee resettlement schemes (for Afghan interpreters, and vulnerable and female citizens) have not only highlighted the persisting financial gap between northern and southern councils, but have arguably also brought to light a potential negative bias towards northern England in news coverage.
Oxfordshire was praised in national news headlines for amassing a sizeable amount of clothes and sanitary donations for Afghan refugees. However, despite hard work carried out in Bradford, Yorkshire saw unfavourable coverage after a five-year-old Afghan boy fell to his death from an unsafe hotel window in Sheffield.
The local Labour MP Louise Haigh says the Home Office has a “serious question that they have to urgently answer”, because they had moved refugees out of the hotel a year ago due to safety concerns, yet resorted to using it to house Afghan refugees last month. The Refugee Council blames “a shortage of suitable housing” for the use of hotels. Naturally, the historic underinvestment in the North has not helped this shortage.
Mr Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ pledge is yet to materialise in real terms – in fact, the gap is seemingly becoming even wider and more dangerous.
Infographic: Maddy Burt, Politics Editor
Image: John Englart via Flickr