GEORGE Osborne’s desire to deliver a Budget for the North was plain to see as he set out the economic parameters for May’s general election – the Chancellor quickly made political capital out of his assertion that more jobs have been created “in the great county of Yorkshire” than in the whole of France.
This Government certainly does have a positive story to tell on job creation – a total of 1.9 million new roles have been set up since 2010. This contrasts with Labour’s prediction that one million people would, in fact, lose their jobs because of coalition austerity cuts.
Yet, with less than 50 days to go until the public give their long-awaited verdict on the economy, it appears politically perverse that Britain’s revival has not been matched by a corresponding upsurge in support for the Tories when the Labour alternative is still bereft of credibility.
The reason is this. Despite David Cameron visiting Shipley at the end of May 2010 to promise to narrow the North-South divide, the coalition’s attempts to empower this region was a belated one and only accelerated by the fallout from the referendum on Scottish independence.
And the electorate’s continued scepticism is being further reinforced by the extent to which Mr Osborne’s politicking over the devolution of powers – and funding – to Northern cities. Even though voters in Britain’s major cities rejected the advent of Boris Johnson-style elected mayors in 2012, the Chancellor is adamant that this leadership model is the only way forward and local authorities in Greater Manchester have consented to this. In return, they will now be allowed to keep the business rates accrued from newly-created firms – a very significant reward for dancing to the Government’s tune.
Contrast this with Sheffield and South Yorkshire, whose devolution deal does not compare favourably to the North West because the “metro mayor” concept was rejected. And it is the same with the new powers afforded to West Yorkshire and Leeds yesterday – they are a pale imitation of Manchester’s package of reforms. The sense of frustration was summed up by Roger Marsh, chairman of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership, who said: “Would we have liked more? Yes. Is this the end of the process? Absolutely not.”
He is right. This does matter – like it or not, Manchester and the North West is a major economic competitor to this region and there is a serious risk that Yorkshire will lose out to its oldest rival in the so-called ‘battle for the North’ being waged by Mr Osborne. Because of this, the debate about elected city mayors needs to be revisited, especially if the Tories form the next government. Second best must never be acceptable for God’s own county.
That said, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the Chancellor’s progress in taking Britain along the road from austerity to prosperity. These include two of the Budget’s more eyecatching measures; flexibility for farmers over their tax arrangements and measures to assist savers which were underpinned by a potentially innovative new scheme to help first-time buyers.
However, the test of this Budget will be its ability to convince sufficient waivering voters in the key West Yorkshire marginal seats where the election will be won and lost that the Tories are a genuine party of the North who should be entrusted to build upon the economic foundations laid by George Osborne. The outcome could not be more critical to Yorkshire’s future.
The best of Britain
IF GEORGE Osborne wants tangible evidence of Britain’s ‘can do’ attitude, he should look no further than Welcome to Yorkshire Y 15 celebration in Scarborough which only served to re-enforce the tourism body’s reputation as the most dynamic and vibrant in the country.
It also demonstrated that the momentum, and enthusiasm, generated by last summer’s Grand Départ will be witnessed again in May’s inaugural Tour de Yorkshire – the line-up of teams for the three-day race is hugely impressive.
Critically, it is not just about cycling – Gary Barlow’s eagerly-anticipated stage adaption of the Calendar Girls story will, once again, put Rylstone WI on the map while June’s marketing campaign to promote the great outdoors can only add to rural Yorkshire’s visitor appeal.
Yet, on the day Mr Osborne used his final Budget to stress his desire to attempt to empower the North, the continued success of Welcome to Yorkshire offers proof of what can be achieved when the Government can place its confidence in such organisations.
The challenge now is to replicate this leadership across the region so Yorkshire’s major towns and cities can become world leaders in their own right and enjoy an even more prosperous future.