David Skelton: Is Theresa May the PM to heal Britain’s great divide?

Will Theresa May deliver for the North?
Will Theresa May deliver for the North?
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I REMEMBER being with my parents in Consett during the 1992 election campaign. We saw the Tory candidate campaigning in what can only be described as a hostile environment. My dad turned to me and said “she’s brave”.

That candidate, of course, is now Prime Minister and that experience of campaigning in Consett two years after the Miners’ Strike, and when memories of the closure of the steelworks were still vivid, gives Theresa May the kind of experience of the industrial North that has been rare in Tory prime ministers since Harold Macmillan.

She will have seen the beginnings of the stark divide in the country, by class, age and geography, that was made abundantly clear with the Brexit vote. Some 64 per cent of working class voters voted to leave and almost 60 per cent of middle class voters voted to remain. Parts of the North made their disenchantment quite clear – Yorkshire and Durham both voted to leave by just under 60 per cent. Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield all voted to leave with close to 70 per cent support.

The continuing extent of the North-South divide was also made clear by an independent economic review into the subject which reported last month. It found that the North had a “performance gap”, defined by GVA per head, which puts it some 25 per cent behind the rest of England. Even when you take London out that gap is still as large as 15 per cent. There is a worrying educational gap between the North and South too, particularly as the performance of schools in London has improved by more than in other parts of the country.

The shadow of deindustrialisation continues to loom large over so many communities in the North. And it loomed large over the Brexit result. There are 42 local authorities that once had coalfields and 41 of these voted for Brexit.

Many of the communities that once played host to heavy industry have still not recovered from its closure. According to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, the proportion of people in the Yorkshire coalfield with a long-term health problem is almost double that in the South East and the coalfields have well above average levels of deprivation and worklessness and below average levels of educational attainment. Many deindustrialised communities throughout the North feel ignored and forgotten about. A government that seeks to remedy “burning injustice” must seek to remedy this sense of disengagement and alienation. These communities have a strong sense of pride, community and place. It’s essential that they also gain renewed economic vitality.

Cities are at the centre of this, of course, and proper devolved leadership with strong powers should help great Northern cities grow and prosper, but strengthening cities shouldn’t mean that these surrounding communities are ignored.

Delivering comprehensive regeneration of left-behind communities would restore hope to many places long deprived of it.

Investment should ensure that the North has the infrastructure to be able to grow and compete. Building on the investment of recent years and the Northern Powerhouse project to ensure that the transport links between the towns and cities of the North, as well as between the North and other regions are rapid and world-beating. Making sure that the North’s digital infrastructure, like broadband and 4G, isn’t just adequate but is excellent enough to enable businesses to make the most of digital opportunities.

It’s to be applauded that the Prime Minister has made clear she is serious about introducing a proper industrial strategy. This area has enormous advantages, in its skilled people and natural resources and should also build on existing comparative advantages, such as digital, green energy and advanced manufacturing, allied with a focus on ensuring that workers have the skills needed in the industries of tomorrow. Government can play a role in helping ensure that different parts of the North gain reputations as global leaders in various economic fields.

School improvement should be allied with a renewed focus on vocational and technical skills and a dedication to ensure that the North has first rate digital skills. The region should be the home of high skilled workers and high skilled jobs and these workers should have rights at work at least as strong as is the case with the Social Chapter. The work of the Childrens’ Commissioner in making the North a great place to grow up in and stay in could be crucial in this.

Just as great swathes of the North of England provided the backbone for the great industries of the past, so it can provide the base for the great industries of the future. And there is an important role for government in ensuring that the infrastructure and skills are in place to make that happen and the incentives are there for firms to base in the North. This would help reverse the brain drain, which has sapped the region of some of its best talent in recent decades and ensure that the North-South divide is genuinely narrowed.

As a recent Resolution Foundation report makes clear, the level of home ownership in many Northern cities has fallen over recent decades and the proportion of private renters have risen dramatically. This has meant that people, particularly at the lower end of the income scale, can’t save up for a deposit. Government, metro mayors and local authorities should strive towards a new scheme that will lead to a new generation of low rent homes with a fast track to the Right to Buy.

The Government has an opportunity to bring about fundamental change to the lives of people across the North and end decades of decline. It can make a real difference to those communities that have felt left behind since the loss of heavy industry, provide hope to those people who has given up on home ownership and bring about a real and lasting turnaround for the Northern economy.

David Skelton is founder of Renewal, a think-tank working to broaden the appeal of the Tory party. You can follow him on Twitter @djskelton