I try and avoid all the gossip. But I did follow the coverage in The Yorkshire Post, and in particular the questions about what a reshuffle might mean for the North, and whether it would signal a backward change in commitment to the Government’s levelling up agenda.
And today, I’m happy to confirm that the answer to those questions is an emphatic no. In fact, the reshuffle has only strengthened our determination to deliver on this most crucial of priorities.
Speaking personally, I could not be more delighted to have been reappointed Northern Powerhouse Minister and Secretary of State for Transport. We often hear criticism in this country that ministers don’t get enough time to make a real difference in the positions they hold, so I am hugely grateful for this opportunity to keep driving the historic Northern Powerhouse project forward.
As I’ve said before, this is a full Cabinet position, and a distinction that confirms the North as the only region of England to have its own dedicated representation at the top table of government. When you also consider the appointments of Metro Mayors to run West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Tees Valley; the opening of Treasury North in Darlington and the new Northern hub for the Bank of England, the huge shifts in decision-making away from London are clear.
And by creating the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Prime Minister showed how rebalancing the UK economy remains at the heart of his vision for the country.
The new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, is someone who passionately believes in building prosperity through the roots of Northern communities, as indeed do I. Neil O’Brien, who helped George Osborne develop early plans for the Northern Powerhouse, has joined the new Department’s ministerial team. And Guiseley-born Andy Haldane, who has worked for the Bank of England for over 30 years, most recently as Chief Economist, is leading a new taskforce on levelling up – something he describes as among the most significant challenges of our time.
In my opinion, the new Northern Powerhouse team is the strongest we’ve ever had in government. There is an understanding that transforming a region as big as the North, after so many decades of underinvestment, cannot happen overnight.
Instead, our task is to build a solid foundation for the sustained regeneration of the North’s communities and economy over successive governments. And creating a new Northern Powerhouse requires reform in many areas, from modernising infrastructure, and bringing new investment to the North, to improving education.
Take one example from the past week – the extended ‘Glasses in Classes’ programme launched by the Department for Education, which provides two free pairs of glasses for children to help them read and write by addressing poor eyesight.
Research shows that almost a third of pupils who require glasses have not visited an optician, and disadvantaged children are less likely to get the glasses they need, which can hold them back at school. The ‘Glasses in Classes’ scheme aims to tackle the problem, and will be rolled out to five places in the North of England under the Opportunity Area programme. This will reach more than 9,000 pupils in at least 225 schools.
Meanwhile, alongside my responsibilities as Northern Powerhouse Minister, I’m looking forward to getting on with boosting and modernising transport across the North.
With the help of the DfT’s Northern Transport Acceleration Council, one of my main priorities in the months ahead will be, wherever possible, to speed up delivery of transport schemes that can help the North bounce back from the Covid pandemic. And I’ll be working with colleagues across Government to put the Northern Powerhouse at the front and centre of everything we do.
I believe this country can be the biggest economy in Europe by 2050. But we can only achieve that goal if we realise our full national potential, energising all parts of our country. That means unlocking the latent potential of the North. Covid has been a terrible distraction from this project. Now, as the skies clear, we must press on.
Grant Shapps is the Transport Secretary and Northern Powerhouse Minister.
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