Tim Farron: Lib Dems will fight for a Northern Powerhouse with real powers

Tim Farron is leader of the Lib Dems.
Tim Farron is leader of the Lib Dems.
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THE Northern Powerhouse is in danger of fading away as the next government struggles to cope with the many detailed aspects of Brexit.

None of us across the North, from whatever party, must allow that to happen.

This idea that focuses attention on the North of England’s potential for greater prosperity as an outcome of greater investment needs to be carried through, not dropped.

England is the most centralised country in the developed democratic world. It is economically dominated by London and the South East.

Politically, ministers in London decide on the details of school organisation and teaching, hospital priorities, and police numbers – priorities that our counties and cities decided themselves 50 years ago. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been given a useful degree of autonomy, but the North of England is still governed from London.

The city deals with greater Manchester and Liverpool have begun to redress the imbalance. And it’s vital that councils across Yorkshire agree on the best framework to give this county an effective voice alongside the devolved administrations.

When I was growing up in Preston, northern towns and cities were still industrial: suffering from outdated machinery and too little reinvestment, but still providing work and prosperity.

The collapse of our industrial base in the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher’s government, left many northern towns behind. Successive Conservative and Labour governments have invested more heavily in greater London and the South-East. George Osborne was right to emphasise transport links as key to northern revival – though he was wrong to suggest that Chinese investors could underwrite it, when Transport for London’s massive budget comes out of public funds.

Since Theresa May became Prime Minister, successive delays have been announced in key northern transport schemes. Linking together the key cities across the North, and improving routes between them and the region’s industrial and coastal towns, is central to economic growth. No government should let it slip further.

But it’s not just transport infrastructure that’s vital. Under-spending on education has left the region with too many unskilled people living on low pay and marginal jobs, while we depend on immigrants to fill skilled vacancies.

The cuts that Conservatives are pushing through in spending on schools make it particularly difficult for children from poorer families across the North.

They need encouragement, as well as skills in maths and other subjects that weren’t essential for the jobs their parents had. And they need help in moving from school to work. The Conservatives’ ambitious plans for apprenticeships, to be paid for by a levy on major employers, will not succeed unless disadvantaged children are supported from nursery and primary school on.

The May government has also talked about ‘industrial strategy’. But that requires local initiative, and local financing, in a country where banks have become more interested in international finance than in funding regional enterprise. Under the 2010-15 coalition, Vince Cable drove through proposals to widen funding for companies – the British Business Bank and the Green Investment Bank. Now the Conservatives are trying to sell these off, rather than funnelling British savings into British enterprise.

The Conservative Party is too much a party of comfortable southern England to give priority to the North. David Cameron, from London and the Cotswolds, has given way to Theresa May, from the Thames Valley. David Davis is the only senior minister sitting for a northern seat.

Media, finance and business, are also firmly London-oriented, dismissive of people from outside their circle – as I’ve discovered in my own political career.

When Theresa May condemned those who voted Remain in the EU referendum as ‘citizens of nowhere’, she failed to admit that the global financial elite who help to fund the Conservative Party fit that description far better than the people across the country who understand national prosperity is linked to our neighbours.

Which is why we need an effective opposition to a government asking voters to trust its leader wherever she may take us. Nick Clegg and Greg Mulholland have argued the case for Yorkshire powerfully in the last Parliament. The more Liberal Democrats from across the North there are in the next Parliament, the more effectively the case for shifting our economy away from an overheated South East will be made.

Don’t sit back and hope that policy-makers in London will look after the North. We have to fight to ensure that our interests are promoted in Westminster and Whitehall, after decades of neglect.

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.