POLITICAL debate in the UK can be somewhat removed from the day-to-day challenges facing the North but, for the first time, England’s regional divide is taking centre stage in the conversation.
Given the context of the General Election result, many people will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Budget to whether the Government is prepared to come good on its promise to ‘spread prosperity’ and level up the country, which, as IPPR North recently identified, is one of the most regionally unequal in the developed world.
Perhaps the most pressing question for the Government at the current time is whether they are committed to put the investment needed into the region’s creaking transport system.
Announcements on Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 are imminent and the outcomes will be seen as indicators of the extent to which Government has been listening to the concerns of voters across the North.
Also under scrutiny is the Government’s commitment to invest in new ways of doing things and in Yorkshire that means devolution.
Devolution is about bringing the policy-making process closer to the people whose lives will be most directly affected. It is about a realisation that we can create better policy and better services by making the most of local knowledge and experience. That a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach from Westminster will no longer cut it in an increasingly complex and diverse society.
Whilst other parts of England’s devolution experiment move forward, Yorkshire has been the ‘hole in the middle’ of the Northern Powerhouse. Whilst imperfect, agreement on the deals in South and West Yorkshire would be important steps forward in getting the process back on track.
But if this Government is to ‘do devolution properly’, as Boris Johnson claimed in Rotherham last September, then lessons need to be learned from how ‘devolution deals’ have been enacted to date. We need an end to the current piecemeal, ‘ragbag’ approach which all too often ends up doing devolution to places rather than with them.
It is also an approach which has left huge swathes of England without any deal at all – areas like East Riding, North Yorkshire, Durham and Lancashire. If regional inequalities are to be properly addressed, we need a greater emphasis upon co-operation, rather than competition, between England’s regions.
New ways of doing things are important at a time when new challenges are increasingly urgent. Climate change is already having an impact, as recent flooding shows. There is an opportunity in the forthcoming Budget to play to the North’s strengths in this regard and make the most of the opportunities that are emerging in areas like Hull around clean growth technology.
Finally, a key test of the new Government’s commitment to fairness will be their approach to austerity. For more than 10 years, communities across the North have borne the brunt of a year-on-year squeeze on local service provision. This has not only impacted on health and social care, but has had knock-on impacts for schools and policing in local neighbourhoods.
So the question is whether the Government will use its March Budget to finally call time on austerity. Austerity has now become a process of stripping services from the youngest and the oldest members of our society. It has meant an end to meals on wheels services, removal of specialist support for children with disabilities, dissemination of rural bus services and increasing pressure on local charities and community groups to take the strain.
But it is not just about the money. What we’ve also seen is an increasing austerity of thought and ambition. Austerity has altered how we think about our places and people and, most importantly, it has limited our visions of the future. It has constrained our imagination about the art of the possible and made us more content to live with mediocrity. In an age of new technological possibilities, the timing could not be worse.
This Government can change this by making sure that the basics are covered. Good schools, decent healthcare and adequate housing are surely not too much to ask from a Budget in the 21st century? It also has a chance to change the conditions for change by daring our local leaders in business, civil society and in the public sector to be ambitious for our region’s future. It should be taken.
Sarah Longlands is director of the IPPR North think-tank.