GEORGE Osborne was uncharacteristically candid last week when he admitted his fear in a major speech that the so-called Northern Powerhouse could be a “casualty” of the new regime in Downing Street. Of course, the word “casualty” implies that something is alive and well to begin with. I beg to differ.
But Osborne was right when he made the broader observation in the first report of his Northern Powerhouse Partnership that too often in government and politics “yesterday’s initiative is too easily dropped and the circus moves on to the next news bulletin or latest tweet”.
His comments followed Theresa May’s recent announcement – one that ran all day on the TV news - of £556m for the Northern Powerhouse. Yet, on closer inspection, it quickly transpired that the cash boost for our region was simply part of a £1.8bn Local Growth Fund that had already been announced in last March’s Budget. It shows, I suppose, that a Government that once vowed to be the ‘greenest ever’ has not given up completely on recycling.
There is a worrying pattern emerging when it comes to what the Government say and what they are actually doing when it comes to the Northern Powerhouse. Osborne first mentioned a ‘Northern global powerhouse’ as long as go as 2014 in a Tory pitch to voters in the region ahead of the 2015 election. The Yorkshire Post’s readers may recall he promised big investment and better transport links that would allow Northern cities “to take on the world”.
So, three years later, what has actually happened? The substance is very different from the spin.
When it comes to major rail links, latest reports suggest the HS2 project could run out of money before the Yorkshire stretch of the route linking the North to London is built, while there appears to be little Government impetus behind a proposed HS3 link to connect Liverpool with Hull.
This isn’t the first failure when it comes to rail improvements for the North. Just seven weeks after polling day in 2015, the Government announced it was shelving the electrical upgrades to the Midland Main Line and TransPennine route.
In contrast, it was good to hear that a future Labour government will deliver on HS3 – dubbed a “Crossrail for the North” – that could create 850,000 jobs by 2050. As part of our plan to transform the region’s economy, Labour will also set up a new funding formula – a “Barnett Formula for the North” – to make up for years of Tory neglect.
Before the general election, the Tories also promised the North would grow as fast as the rest of the country from 2015 to 2020, with economic growth of £13bn by 2030 and 100,000 new jobs. Yet since 2010, London has enjoyed economic growth of 24 per cent compared to only 10.7 per cent in Yorkshire. The net change in employment is around 2,000 jobs, which means it would take around 60 years for the Government to hit its target.
And who could forget the Government’s infamous decision to close down the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills office in Sheffield and move it to London with the loss of 247 jobs?
When it comes to education, contrary to recent explicit claims from Ministers that areas like my constituency would get extra money under a new funding formula, it now transpires that schools in Barnsley could be £6.6m worse off by 2020. This bleak outlook was confirmed in the first report from Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership think tank last week. It warned that “urgent attention” must be given to improving education in the region.
And the Government is also pressing ahead with cuts which are in many parts of Yorkshire disproportionate – despite hitting areas of higher need.
For all its talk of the £556m investment for the North, the cash allocated to the more prosperous South-East was not much smaller at £492m.
Theresa May’s apparent scepticism about the whole Northern Powerhouse project is well-known in Westminster. Some have suggested she wanted to refocus the Government’s attention on Birmingham and the Midlands, home of a number of Tory marginal seats. Even Osborne was forced to admit last year that the woman who sacked him had a “wobble” over his plan – hardly something to inspire confidence among business, investors or indeed the public.
It is simply not good enough for the Government to keep making big promises that don’t amount to anything and re-issuing press releases about plans for the North. People want to see action and shovels in the ground when it comes to new homes, new roads and rail links.
This month, Osborne wrote that the North of England was “at a turning point”. A crossroads might be more accurate. It is now time for Theresa May to show us that the promised Northern Powerhouse is more than just an empty Northern PR-house.
Michael Dugher MP is Labour MP for Barnsley East and a former member of the Shadow Cabinet.