THE contents of George Osborne’s Autumn Statement reflect the extent to which the political and economic dynamics of Yorkshire and the North have changed since the coalition came to power.
Four years ago the Government stood accused of abdicating its responsibilities to the regions after cancelling an £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters in one of its first acts.
Now every setpiece speech delivered by Mr Osborne is underpinned by a determination on the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s part to transform the North into a “powerhouse” – and yesterday’s mini-budget was no exception.
For too long, successive governments paid “lip service” to the region’s social and economic policy challenges – complacency that left taxpayers paying a heavy price for the resulting culture of welfare dependency – and Mr Osborne is the first senior Tory, since Michael Heseltine 35 years ago, to recognise the size of the North’s untapped potential.
The Chancellor also knows more than most that there are compelling political and economic reasons for doing so – the Conservatives still need to broaden their support base ahead of the 2015 election and the whole of Britain will prosper in the future if more businesses invest in Yorkshire and neighbouring regions.
On this basis, Mr Osborne’s chancellorship can be regarded as a game-changer for the English regions and his agenda has now been given added impetus by the referendum on Scottish independence and the extra powers being devolved to Holyrood – Yorkshire has every right to demand greater financial freedoms.
In this regard, it is significant that the Autumn Statement did not include sweeping new powers for the Sheffield and Leeds city-regions which are comparable to the devolution settlement recently agreed with civic leaders in Manchester.
Yet, while Mr Osborne’s tone suggested that voters might have to accept Boris Johnson-style elected mayors in return for devolved powers, the upcoming announcement for Sheffield and South Yorkshire is likely to reveal more about future intentions.
After all, the critical decision is getting the detail and structures correct at the outset of this process, preferably by consensus at a local, regional and national level, while also making sure that North and East Yorkshire are not marginalised.
Mr Osborne’s challenge is making sure that the momentum generated by his policy initiatives is maintained.
It would also help the Chancellor’s cause – and allay the fears of those who are suspicious of electioneering – if he resisted the temptation to exaggerate policies. This request stems from his assertion to Parliament that “ancient and unpopular Pacer carriages” will be replaced with “new and modern trains” under the Northern Rail and TransPennine Express franchises that are currently out to tender.
However the accompanying Treasury documents are much less categorical – they only point to bidders being “encouraged” to invest in new rolling stock.
Such sleights of hand do Mr Osborne few favours when he is grappling with an economy which is not expected to deliver a surplus until 2018-19 following the downward revision of many forecasts.
Though the Chancellor’s aspiration agenda cannot be faulted, Britain’s recovery is still a fragile one and it will not be completed until the North is in a position to start making a positive contribution to the national economy. On this, George Osborne’s work is only just beginning.
Wheel of fortune
The Tour and economic spin-offs
THERE IS no doubting the fact that the Tour de France generated priceless publicity for Yorkshire, and the inspired decision to bring the Grand Départ to Britain is vindicated by a newly-published report on the economic spin-offs.
The iconic imagery of the world’s greatest cyclists racing through a never-ending tunnel of humanity shows what is possible when the region’s leaders pull together in the same direction. They need to continue doing so – tourism policy at a national level is fragmented and London-centric – and events like the Grand Départ showcase Yorkshire’s unique appeal to a global audience.
But one legacy race is still to be won, and that is the need to make the region’s roads safer for a new generation of cyclists inspired by Britain’s world-beaters on two wheels. Progress on many initiatives is still stuck in the slow lane at a time when such schemes need to be accelerated following the successful staging of a Tour like no other.