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Andrew Vine: Budget is a chance to turbocharge the Northern Powerhouse

Chris Grayling at York station.
Chris Grayling at York station.
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THERE is a step that the Chancellor should take in his Budget tomorrow which would give Britain an enormous economic boost at a time of uncertainty.

It is to turbocharge the Northern Powerhouse concept with the funds to make the idea – and all the promise it holds – into a reality that would benefit not just millions of people in our region, but across the whole country.

Taking this step is so blindingly obviously in the nation’s best interests that failure to do so would amount to a dereliction of duty on the part of Philip Hammond and the Government.

That isn’t an exaggerated claim. Strategically, this should be a top priority in the drive to boost the country’s economy. And because politics can’t be left out of the equation, it makes all the sense in the world for a shaky Government.

There is not a single argument in favour of further prevarication over the Northern Powerhouse – but there is a multitude of arguments for getting on with it now.

And the most persuasive of them is that Britain needs the economy of the North to be firing on all cylinders if it is to succeed in the years ahead.

This was always the case, and successive generations of politicians from all the governing parties should be ashamed at having allowed the North-South divide in funding that has held us back for decades to continue.

It was long overdue to be addressed anyway, but a Britain heading for Brexit makes the case for pressing ahead with the Northern Powerhouse not just eminently sensible, but a matter of urgency.

Whatever shape life outside the EU takes, it makes no sense to have the economy of the North under-performing when – given the right help – it could forge ahead.

There may well be an economic shock lying in wait beyond Brexit, and to withstand it Britain needs all its regions to be as vigorous as possible. Jobs and the prosperity of businesses depend upon the whole country succeeding, not just the affluent South-East.

There is a more positive reason to put measures in place now to boost the North. If the outcome of Brexit is to open up new avenues of international trade, the region needs to be ready to take advantage of them, declaring that it is open for business and ready to welcome investment.

The great cities of the North operating together, with a cohesive offer, stand a much greater chance of attracting business from overseas than do individual areas attempting to go it alone – and possibly fighting among themselves as a result.

Mr Hammond appears to be a pragmatist and should need no persuading that giving the North the means to fulfil its potential makes both sound economic sense and is the most worthwhile of strategic investments in Britain’s future.

He is also a shrewd political operator, and might reflect that he has before him the opportunity to build a legacy that the Government desperately wants – as well as attracting votes in the North, which the Conservatives need if they are to have any chance of retaining power at the next election.

The Government is currently destined to be remembered solely for Brexit. The issue is so all-consuming that every other area of policy is virtually paralysed.

Theresa May came to office pledging to create a Britain that worked for everyone. Weakened though she is after her disastrous General Election campaign, it is still possible to achieve a measure of what she wanted to do, and the Northern Powerhouse presents that opportunity.

A country that works for everyone means a North that is not at a disadvantage to the South, and addressing that inequality would allow her to point to a solid achievement that left the country in a better state than she found it.

Investment in the Northern Powerhouse would also send out a powerful message to the enemies in her own party that Mrs May is not just clinging to power, but addressing long-term problems that other Prime Ministers with much more solid majorities ignored.

Transport should be at the heart of Mr Hammond’s thinking about how to make the Northern Powerhouse a reality.

His Cabinet colleague, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, has alienated voters in the North, an extraordinary thing to do at a time when the Government needs to bolster its support.

His lack of action on poor trans-Pennine rail links would have been bad enough, but the cancellation of plans to electrify the Midland Mainline from Sheffield was worse.

Mr Hammond has the opportunity to repair some of that damage. Last week’s announcement of funding for Transport for the North was welcome, but its limited powers amount to a small step forward when giant strides are required to cut journey times by rail.

The Chancellor should not hesitate. It is in his power not only to boost the North, but by doing so, also set the whole country on course to a better future.