The Bolton News has teamed up with titles across the North of England to address Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, one of whom will be our next Prime Minister.

On December 14, 2019, voters from a swathe of 'red wall' seats - from Wakefield to Bolton and Bishop Auckland - voted Conservative for the first time, ushering in an 80-seat majority for what seemed to be an invincible PM in Boris Johnson.

Fast forward to July 2022 - three years almost exactly since the phrase 'levelling up' was coined - and the slogan used to sum up his plan to spread opportunity to left-behind parts of the country in the North and Midlands is starting to ring hollow.

The twin headwinds of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis - plus the constant stench of scandal surrounding the PM himself - have understandably dominated his government's attention and left little bandwidth for the complicated task of undoing decades of worsening inequality.

But as two recent reports have set out all too clearly, in many parts of the North the dramatic events of the last two years have actually set the cause back even further.

Figures published by End Child Poverty Coalition show that almost half of children living in the Bolton South East constituency were living in poverty in 2020/21– 46.1 per cent – while in Bolton West the figure is just over a quarter – 27.3 per cent.

This gap has been growing wider over a five-year period. Between 2015 and 2021 the proportion of child poverty in Bolton South East has increased by eight per cent, while in Bolton West the percentage has remained fairly steady, increasing by 0.7 per cent over the same period.

It’s clear that after a pandemic which hit the North’s towns, villages and cities harder than those in the South East, the argument for taking robust and concerted action is more powerful than ever.

Mr Johnson has in the last two years named a key department after 'levelling up' and tasked one of his most able Ministers - Michael Gove - with delivering his agenda, in the process producing 12 missions to judge his success.

Thousands of government workers are moving to Darlington and Leeds from London and the North now has three low-tax 'freeports' on top of the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund doling out cash for local regeneration projects.

But for the thousands of families across the North still held back by non-existent transport and a lack of jobs and skills, with inflation chipping away at their living standards, the idea that their communities are being 'levelled up' must seem almost laughable.

For those who care about the future of the North - and its ability to contribute to a successful nation - it's clear that levelling up is not just a race yet to be won but one barely out of the starting blocks.

So, with Boris Johnson now on his way out and Michael Gove abruptly sacked, it's all the more alarming to read multiple reports in the national press that the agenda could be junked by the next PM.

Though the two remaining hopefuls, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, have made many of the right noises about their commitment to the cause it's been far from a top priority in a debate largely focused on tax cuts and culture wars.

Perhaps, as reports suggest, Tory strategists are worried the perception of favouring neglected parts of the North will cost them as they defend seats in the affluent South East from the Liberal Democrats.

Done properly however levelling up, or whatever the next PM wants to call it, could help ease those areas’ sky-high housing costs by cooling down the pressure on the overheated regions around our dominant capital.

Bridging the gap between London and the neglected regions is a job of decades and - if the example of East and West Germany is anything to go by - trillions, rather than billions of pounds.

The aim is not just to apply a sticking plaster to the problems communities face in 2022 but to address why Northern towns and cities are more likely to face them.

At the heart of the issue is a problem under the bonnet of the North’s economy. The average Northern worker - for a whole host of reasons - is 50 per cent less productive than one in London, a gap that’s widened rapidly in recent years.

There’s no escaping the fact that any leader serious about the task of bridging this gap will have to make hard decisions about where and how it spends its money.

Depriving Bradford of a high-speed railway station may cut costs in the short term but how much will it waste in squandered potential in the coming decades as talented youngsters are cut off from good jobs?

And new analysis by the IPPR North think-tank released today shows the gap in public spending between the North and the rest of the country has actually widened during the last three years.

While total public spending in the North was £16,223 per person in 2021, up 17 per cent on 2019, the England average rose by 20 per cent and the London average by 25 per cent to £19,231.

But this is not simply a case of the North with its begging bowl out asking for more cash from the hard-pressed taxpayer.

Lancashire MP Jake Berry, who leads the Northern Research Group of Tory backbenchers, includes in his four asks of the next PM a ‘levelling up formula’ which would equalise government funding and ensure the North is not left behind.

But he also proposes changes that will rewire our unequal nation and give communities in the North the ability to succeed on their own terms, including a greater emphasis on vocational training with our region at the heart of it.

Some changes have already been made to the Green Book - the Treasury’s method of deciding where public money should be spent - but more reform is needed if towns and rural areas aren’t to be held back.

And above all central government must stop hoarding power and press the accelerator on devolution, giving elected mayors with strong local mandates the ability to take control of their post-16 education systems.

This important step would mean young people would be equipped with the skills they need to get well-paid local jobs on the likes of Manchester’s Oxford Road or at Rotherham’s Advanced Manufacturing Park and not have to move away for a better life.

One-off pots of cash might look good on election flyers but meaningful change will only come with a commitment to a more ambitious long-term approach, driven by leaders who understand their communities.

The North deserves to know where Mr Sunak and Ms Truss - the two contenders to be our next Prime Minister - stand on these issues and whether they’re truly committed to the hard decisions necessary to end the status quo.

As Jake Berry puts it, after getting the backing of both hopefuls for his four asks: “Rishi and Liz cannot simply pledge and forget about the North. The time for talking is over, we in the North demand action.”

And ahead of the first regional leadership hustings in Leeds this week - and follow-ups in Manchester and Darlington next month - major news titles across our region today put the following five key questions to the two candidates:

• What will you do to make sure the commitments made to the North by your predecessors as Prime Minister are kept?

• The average worker in the North is 50 per cent less productive than one in London, what will you do to address this widening gap?

• What will you do to address spiralling rates of child poverty in parts of Northern England?

• How far will you go to give Northern leaders control over education and skills, transport and health budgets currently held by Westminster, and will you give them more powers to raise or lower taxes to boost local economies?

• Will you retain a government department responsible for tackling regional inequalities with a Cabinet-level Minister for whom this is their main job?

We’ll publish the responses later this week. And with Labour making the case that they’re now the true party of levelling up we’ll be asking them to answer too.

As Conservative members in the North of England weigh up who to choose as the next Prime Minister, they should be looking not just at who might help them win the next election but their vision for the people of our proud regions.

Rosie Lockwood, head of advocacy at IPPR North, said: “The North deserves nothing more than the next Prime Minister to step through the door of number ten and set to work unlocking its potential. Northern prosperity is national prosperity.”

The argument was put neatly by Michael Gove who said last week that levelling up was not just a social mission but also "an economic mission, because if different parts of the United Kingdom are all performing as effectively as the South East and London, then we would be the strongest economy in Europe."

Anything but a full-throated commitment to this agenda would be a betrayal of the Northern voters who backed Boris Johnson in 2019. But worse than that, it would be a sad admission of defeat for the idea that everyone in this country should have a fair chance of success, no matter where they live.