Yorkshire Post comment: Time to close this north-south divide, Mr Cameron

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OUR message to the Prime Minister today is clear – it is time to deliver on your promise to close the North-South divide.

Yorkshire demands a fair deal on funding and investment, not just for the sake of the region’s future prosperity but for the sake of the country as a whole.

Forgemasters apprentice Hannah Berry at work in Sheffield.

Forgemasters apprentice Hannah Berry at work in Sheffield.

We have applauded David Cameron for his pledges to rebalance the economy since arriving in 10 Downing Street. We welcomed the fact that his first major economic speech as Premier was made in Yorkshire.

We believe he spoke sincerely when he promised that our region would not fall behind, and now we believe the time has come for him to make the Government’s actions match his words.

It is vital that he heeds the message that is coming loud and clear from this region. The hope of achieving that bold goal of making Yorkshire a more prosperous place is in peril as we reveal:

• A stark North-South divide in the economic recovery as London and the South East power ahead in creating jobs and reviving housebuilding while graduates fear having to leave Yorkshire to find work

• Millions of pounds of European regeneration funding awarded to Yorkshire is at risk of going unspent because of a shortage of top-up money necessary to unlock it

• Yorkshire’s tourism agency risks being left without public funding next year, while Scotland spends £38m competing for visitors

• A report commissioned by the Tories into the transport needs of the North has been binned

• Anger that a discredited funding system means every Scot has £1,500 more of public money spent on them than people in Yorkshire

• Concern that Yorkshire has been left without a voice to champion the region to investors and Ministers.

The North-South divide is not a vague political concept – it is about jobs and prosperity for people living in Yorkshire now and future generations.

We welcome measures like the £1.4bn Regional Growth Fund and a National Insurance break for new firms which have been directed specifically at areas outside London and the South East. Business-friendly Enterprise Zones in Leeds and South Yorkshire should help the economy. The support of the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary Philip Hammond for high-speed rail in the face of vocal opposition in the South has also been truly heartening, and we will continue to voice our backing.

But Yorkshire cannot afford to wait 20 years for the line to be built in the hope it can bridge the chasm between North and South – we need jobs created now.

At a time when the region needs to shout louder than ever to make its needs known to Ministers and its strengths known to investors it is regrettable that Yorkshire has been left without a vocal champion in the Government’s rush to sweep away anything regional.

Instead we are left with a region of disparate voices and a new system which neither encourages nor inspires region-wide thinking on issues of strategic importance. While London Mayor Boris Johnson is given more powers and has the ear of Ministers, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have seats around the Cabinet table, Mr Cameron has not seen through his promise made more than a year ago of City Ministers to help our great cities thrive.

There is no desire for a return to bureaucratic structures of the past, yet leaders in the private and public sectors must ensure this void is filled so a distinct Yorkshire voice is heard loud and clear.

But Ministers must also be prepared to listen – something that too often has not happened in the chaotic transition from Yorkshire Forward to the new Local Enterprise Partnerships now charged with reviving the economy – and be as serious about giving real powers to Yorkshire as they have been for London and Scotland. For a Government that preaches localism, how can it be right that Whitehall still decides which of the region’s transport schemes go ahead?

The era of plenty is over, and the state of the economy has left the Government having to make difficult decisions as it rightly prioritises the need to tackle the deficit. Throwing vast sums of money at problems – often with questionable effect – is no longer an option.

But that makes it all the more pressing that every pound spent should be allocated to best use. If a small investment in Yorkshire tourism – already worth £7bn a year – allows the industry to grow and is matched by private money, that has to be money well spent.

It also makes it all the more important that every pound is spent fairly. Stopping hard-working Yorkshire taxpayers subsidising free prescriptions and social care for Scots through the Barnett Formula would be a start.

The private sector will only create the jobs to close the North-South divide if the Government plays its part by ensuring the region finally gets a fair share of money for much-needed transport improvements demanded by business; by working with councils and companies to stop the travesty of European money going unspent; and by listening to Yorkshire’s businesses about what further steps can be taken to encourage enterprise.

Talk about rebalancing the economy is one thing, cracking the North-South divide is another.

It’s time to give Yorkshire a fair deal if we are all to enjoy a more prosperous future.

• Special reports in Saturday’s Yorkshire Post