There were murmurs of approval as the then largely unknown politician set out a bold vision of the North becoming “the powerhouse not just of Britain but of the world”. That MP was Rishi Sunak who, within a matter of years, would become Chancellor and responsible for the region’s revival.
Little did the now 40-year-old realise that his ascent to the top – only George Osborne became Chancellor at a younger age in the past 100 years – would be so rapid or that his first year would be dominated by Covid and the economic shockwaves as the UK faced its biggest ever slump.
As such, it is to the Richmond MP’s credit that his reputation has, in fact, been enhanced by a desire to do “whatever it takes” to support workers and families and a pragmatic willingness to rip up economic orthodoxy to do so. It is also indicative of Covid’s wider societal impact that many of the Treasury’s support schemes, including the pioneering furlough job retention policy, are likely to be extended in next week’s Budget because the threat to public health from the reopening of the economy is still such a profound one.
A state of affairs that even the Chancellor did not necessarily anticipate when he unveiled each of these short-term emergency measures, they remain an important safety net, albeit at significant ongoing cost to the public purse, as the country moves tentatively towards the pandemic’s recovery phase.
But this must not stop the Chancellor from using this Budget, the first in which he’s had full ownership, to put his original words on the Northern Powerhouse into action as part of a wider post-Brexit policy after not doing so in last November’s Spending Review.
For, while Covid, and the world-leading vaccine rollout, do dominate the national agenda, its after-effects are already leading to a further widening of the North-South divide – the precise opposite of the Government’s 2019 election intentions – and Boris Johnson alluded to this at when describing education as the “biggest challenge” now facing the country.
And while this Budget must provide the necessary public and private sector funding to transform the North’s business, training, digital and rural infrastructure, even more so after Mr Johnson appeared to be so disingenuous this week over transport spending, the Chancellor should turbo-charge schools and skills policy.
After all, it was the issue of education that motivated Mr Sunak to enter politics in the first place – he told The Yorkshire Post as much in a major interview last summer – and it is to the credit of the North’s schools, and students, that so many young people do so well, and exceed expectations, while still being denied the level of funding, and Government intervention, enjoyed by their counterparts in London and elsewhere.
If productivity, a recurring drag on the North’s economy, is to be improved in the region, and if the Government is serious about tackling the wealth divide that saw 1,600 Londoners make more in capital gains than the 15 million people who live and work here, it begins with a world-class education and skills agenda focused on STEM and digital subjects.
Now, therefore, is not the time for slogans, as Mr Sunak once said, or the liberal use of the phrase ‘levelling up’ that risks devaluing the Northern Powerhouse. This has to be a Budget for North so that this region can finally begin to untap the potential ignored by successive governments – Tory and Labour – for too long and one which turns the Covid crisis into a wider agenda for renewal and, crucially, equality of opportunity for all. Over to you, Chancellor.
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