Jayne Dowle: Northern Powerhouse in need of Cabinet Minister

Conservatives have cancelled a fundraising event at the National Coal Mining Museum.
Conservatives have cancelled a fundraising event at the National Coal Mining Museum.
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IF our region is to thrive under the “Northern Powerhouse” where do you think the impetus needs to come from? A £450-a-head conference in Manchester, labelled as an “embarrassment” last year by metro-mayor Andy Burnham because there wasn’t a single woman among the 15 main speakers?

Or what about a dinner for West Yorkshire Tories at the National Coal Mining Museum, near Wakefield? A dinner which was planned to take place in March next year, just two days after the anniversary of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike?

Both of these events have now been cancelled. No reason has been given for the decision to not go ahead with the Northern Powerhouse event in February. However, the museum itself has pulled the plug on the Dewsbury County Conservative Association’s proposed shindig after protesters threatened to turn up. The official reason was “fears over staff safety”.

I think we all know that it is about more than a few people turning up waving placards. It tells us a deeper truth about society in the North of England right now. On the one hand we have business people, civic leaders and aspiring politicos prepared to hand over hundreds of pounds in disposable income in exchange for a chicken dinner and a marginally interesting speech or two. On the other, we have families who literally cannot afford to buy a Christmas turkey from Lidl (other discount supermarkets are available).

I am sure that the intentions of both the Northern Powerhouse conference and the Conservative Party dinner were honourable. I’m sure too that both events would have provided the opportunity for prominent people to get together and gossip – sorry, network. However, with respect to the organisers, these kind of things never actually get anything done. They just remind us that some have, and many have not.

The members of the Dewsbury County Conservative Association are entitled to enjoy themselves as much as anybody. You might think, though, with the Government in such disarray and potential Tory voters so disenchanted, that they would be directing their efforts into proving that they mean business. Booking a major event at a venue associated with the decimation of an industry which has caused our region so much hardship is hardly tactful.

If I was a modern, reforming Tory activist in Yorkshire I wouldn’t want my name in the same sentence as “mining”, “miners” or “strike”. Memories are long round here. There are families in my own village who still don’t talk to other families because of which side they were on in the General Strike of 1926. The recent decision not to hold a government inquiry into “the Battle of Orgreave”, the brutal clashes between police and miners during the 1984-5 strike, reminds us that the sense of injustice remains raw.

And still we hear politicians talking blithely about the Northern Powerhouse as if none of this ever existed. I know we must move on, look forward and all that, but how can this be achieved when there is so much division still in our region?

More pertinently, if the devolution aims of One Yorkshire, supported by this newspaper, are to be successful, we need to promote a united voice. A Conservative dinner at a coal mining museum is hardly the way forward.

Still, what else can we expect? It is clear that the Government is so sidetracked and pole-axed by the agonies of the Brexit negotiations that little else is being achieved. I think it is fair to say that leadership is lacking. I know that Prime Minister Theresa May visited Leeds with her Chancellor Philip Hammond in the wake of the Budget last month.

There are no prizes for presenteeism, however. What’s needed is action. Mrs May might be forgiven for being busy elsewhere. So she should elevate her Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry, member for Rossendale and Darwen, to the Cabinet, so that other members of the Government will at least recognise him.

And then, I hope, he might find the confidence to put the Northern Powerhouse firmly on the agenda, start briefing the newspapers properly and look a little bit further than HS2 and the possibility of some new roadworks on the M62.

For the cancellation of these prominent events in Manchester and Wakefield remind us of the one key ingredient which has been overlooked in the Northern Powerhouse debate so far.

The North of England is full of potential and economic promise. It is also full of people. More than five million of us live in Yorkshire for a start.

Until politicians and policy-makers start to properly engage with us and enthuse us, their plans will amount to not much more than fancy speeches made at conferences where the ticket prices could keep a family in food and clothing for months.

These recent cancellations should serve as a marker in the sand. From now on, our so-called community, business and political leaders should forget their chicken dinners and start addressing the things which really matter to us all; declining social mobility, faltering schools, lack of jobs and what it really feels like to buy your entire Christmas list from a pound shop.