Across Yorkshire and the Humber, 58 per cent of people voted to leave the European Union; and in “left behind” towns and villages right across the country, the margin was similarly high. The vote was fuelled by deeply held feelings of economic and political disenchantment, and that frustration persists across many parts of Yorkshire and the North.
For too long, the UK’s economic strategy has been too city-centric, laissez-faire and dependent on the assumption that wealth would trickle down and prosperity ripple out. This ink-spot approach to regional development has failed to deliver the inclusive growth that we want to see for all parts of our country.
In my capacity as both mayor and an MP, I have consistently argued that investment in our region’s transport infrastructure – sitting alongside other factors – is key to resolving our current predicament.
Transport infrastructure is how we connect people with the places that they want to go. Even in the age of the internet, roads and railways remain the lifeblood of our economy. They are how we get around – for work, to access public services and for leisure – and are crucial for businesses to shift their products from the point of production to both domestic and international markets.
We know what the benefits of strong transport infrastructure are. Great Yorkshire Way, the stretch of road that links up Doncaster Sheffield Airport with the M18, is the most significant mile of road built in South Yorkshire for decades.
From an initial £56m investment, our region unlocked £1.8bn worth of investment; created 1,200 jobs; supported national airport capacity; and aided the development of the iPort – one of the UK’s largest logistics developments. All of which was achieved whilst regenerating a former coalfield community and improving opportunities for residents.
We need more smart infrastructure investments such as this so that we can unlock opportunities for our businesses and communities. But the city-led development that has prevailed for decades has meant that in some parts of our region, communities are disconnected from one another and cut off from the major centres of growth.
The current approach by Government does little to bridge the gap between the larger cities and the places at their peripheries, because the Treasury Green Book criteria for allocating infrastructure investment is skewed toward meeting existing economic demand, rather than stimulating it. I have raised this several times with the Chancellor, Secretaries of State and Ministers, but we are yet to see meaningful change to their approach.
But changing the approach is critical to addressing our productivity problem because it results in a situation where, for every £1 of public infrastructure investment spent on transport across Yorkshire and the Humber, £3.20 is spent on London’s transport networks.
Projects such as Great Yorkshire Way have unquestionably delivered local, regional and national benefits, and they need to be properly supported by Government. Because we need to see greater and stronger networks between our towns, cities and rural communities.
We now have a plan to do that. Last month, the Transport for the North board agreed the Strategic Transport Plan, which sets out an ambitious £70bn programme of investment in the North’s transport networks. We also recently submitted to Government our strategic outline business case for Northern Powerhouse Rail, which will improve connectivity both within and between the North’s towns and cities.
It must work alongside plans to encourage sustainable and active travel. I am proud that, in the Sheffield City Region, we are planning investment in better infrastructure to encourage active travel.
If the Government is serious about addressing Britain’s regional imbalances, then it must commit to a serious programme of investment that can deliver the transformational changes which will give people stake in their communities. The Chancellor has an opportunity in the Spring Statement to do this. If he doesn’t, he will be failing to prepare communities across the North for life beyond Brexit. Communities across the North will be listening to whether he makes good on his promise in last year’s Budget that austerity is coming to an end.
Dan Jarvis is the mayor for Sheffield City Region. He is also the Labour MP for Barnsley Central.