The North has suffered disproportionately from nine years of economic stagnation resulting from the austerity cuts imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2010. Even today real wages are struggling to get back to 2008 levels.
Since 2010, Whitehall funding of local authorities has been reduced by nearly 50 per cent. The result has been swingeing cuts to public services. Inadequately funded social care is taking an increasing proportion of councils’ budgets. Spending on transport, housing, planning, culture and leisure services has been cut by 40 per cent or more per person. For many people, that has meant a poorer quality of life.
In 2016, austerity, government neglect of the North and a mendacious Leave campaign were some of the factors that persuaded a majority of voters that they would be better off outside the EU. Successive governments had also failed to make a positive case for our membership and recognise the good things the EU has done (one small example: the £134m Regional Development Fund grant for business growth and job creation in the Leeds City Region).
Brexit won’t solve the North’s problems. On the contrary: it will make them worse. The Government’s own figures show that every conceivable form of Brexit will damage the economy – and the hard or no-deal Brexit towards which Boris Johnson is headed will damage it most of all.
If he keeps his pledge not to extend the transition period, the economy will, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, take a severe knock. The exchequer’s tax-take will be significantly reduced, resulting in increased public sector debt and much reduced scope for investment in public services.
Once we are outside the EU, trading with our largest market will be more difficult and more expensive. That will have an adverse effect on investment and jobs in the North – as shown by Nissan’s decision to cut back on production at Sunderland.
Three and a half years after the referendum, many people are fed up to the back teeth with Brexit and just want to get it over. That’s understandable. But whether we end up today with a Conservative majority or another hung parliament, Brexit will not be done any time soon
Under Boris Johnson’s plan, we will leave the EU with his withdrawal agreement (in effect separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK) on January 31 followed by an 11-month transition period.
But Sir Ivan Rogers, who resigned as Britain’s Ambassador to the EU in January 2017, believes this will make “the biggest crisis of Brexit to date” virtually inevitable in late 2020. Trade deals typically take seven years – not 11 months – to negotiate; and the more divergence from existing EU rules Johnson wants, the harder it will be.
Whatever the election result, Brexit will be with us for months or (more probably) years to come. And whatever its political complexion, the new Government will face formidable challenges in the North.
Any government serious about reducing carbon emissions should give much greater priority to public transport. Yet although I live in a rural constituency in North Yorkshire, the election leaflet of my Conservative candidate says not a word about public transport. Rail services need urgent improvement. Rural bus services – essential for those who don’t live in a town and are unable to drive or can’t afford a car – have been largely wiped out and must be restored.
The NHS and social care (a ticking time bomb) is a major concern. On social care, Johnson promised on the steps of 10 Downing Street to “fix it once and for all”. Shamefully that promise, like so many others, has already been ditched.
More attention and resources must be devoted to prevention and personal health, to mental health and especially to post-hospital care, so that people – particularly the elderly – are not kept unnecessarily and expensively in hospital when they would much rather be at home.
Earlier this year A&E at my own nearest hospital, The Friarage, Northallerton, was downgraded to an Urgent Treatment Centre which cannot handle life-threatening injuries or illnesses – now dealt with at James Cook, Middlesbrough, meaning a journey of at least an hour and a half. The key issue here is the recruitment and retention of doctors and nurses.
Plenty of challenges, then, for the new government and I haven’t even mentioned flooding, farming, climate change, crime, schools, high streets. Will it meet any of them? Time will tell.
Tony Rossiter, from North Yorkshire, is a former civil servant who worked at the Department of Trade and Industry.