North still waiting for true powerhouse voice in Commons - Tom Richmond

IT is now just over a year since The Yorkshire Post – and fellow newspapers – won the campaign to persuade Boris Johnson to appoint a Northern Powerhouse Minister to his Cabinet.

Jake Berry (left) was the original Northern Powerhouse Minister in the Cabinet before being replaced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (right). They are pictured at Leeds Station earlier this year.

A key demand of the agenda-setting and award-winning Power Up The North campaign, Jake Berry initially represented the North at the top table before the role was merged with Grant Shapps’s transport brief.

And the increased awareness about the Northern Powerhouse’s potential is now sparking calls for Whitehall ministries, like transport or communities, to be moved to a Government hub here.

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I’m all for this – the mindset of senior civil servants, the real power-brokers of government, will only change if they, too, move out of their London comfort zone, realise that life in the capital is not emblematic of the English regions and rethink their approach.

Jake Berry (left) and Grant Shapps (right) during a visit to The Yorkshire Post earlier this year.

But my regret is that the Government – and Parliament – have still to elevate the role, and status, of the Northern Powerhouse remit in the House of Commons.

My reasoning is this. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own Secretary of State – Alister Jack, Simon Hart and Brandon Lewis respectively – who have to regularly answer 30 minutes of questions from MPs. These Cabinet-level posts are in addition to the First Ministers at Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

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They’re also separate select committees at Parliament for each of the devolved countries where backbench MPs question MPs and, crucially, civil servants on a range of nitty-gritty policy details. There’s time and opportunity for proper debate and accountability (when the SNP aren’t playing games).

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle is being urged to hold dedicated Northern Powerhouse Questions in Parliament. Photo: PA

Contrast with the Northern Powerhouse. Though Grant Shapps takes 60-minutes of questions fairly frequently, they’re primarily to do with transport – including rail and road improvements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and no dedicated time is set aside for the Northern Powerhouse.

Equally, the absence of any form of Northern Powerhouse Committee means there’s still little oversight or chance for backbench MPs to question senior officials on why they’re dragging their feet.

I’m also told that this situation exists because the devolved nations have always had special status and remain integral to the work of the UK Government. That might be so. But, given 15 million people live and work in the North, it seems odd that there’s a reluctance to put in place sufficient scrutiny when this agenda alone is so fundamental to the future prosperity of the whole country.

Perhaps Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the current Speaker and a plain-speaking Lancastrian to boot, will show more urgency than Jacob Rees-Mogg, the current Leader of the Commons, whose presumably putting his feet up, as is his wont, while the North waits for this democratic deficit to begin to be rectified.

SO much for devolution and localism. If the Government is a true disciple of this agenda, why is it telling councils how to consult local communities over planning applications?

Thorny issues at the best of times, Ministers only want details circulated online in the future rather than traditional yellow notices being posted to lamp posts.

Housing Minister Chris Pincher claims that this is an “antiquated practice” as the Government shows its impatience.

I disagree. Such notices are integral to public confidence in the planning process – transparency is critical – and not all residents have access to the internet or the computer skills to search online each week in the off-chance that their neighbours might be planning an intrusive extension.

Only the other week, just such a notice was up in my street and people were able to make observations about the importance of maintaining access while building work takes place.

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that such input is to be denied in the future?

If money is the issue, a small surcharge could be added to existing charges (£206 for an extension) when planning applications are submitted in future in order to avoid this unnecessary Whitehall power grab.

BAD news for under-fire Cabinet ministers Gavin Williamson and Robert Jenrick – their support among Tory activists continues to plummet, according to a new poll.

Both the Education Secretary, and Communities Secretary, now have negative ratings, a fate previously suffered by a certain Chris Grayling.

Even more embarrassingly, they had even less support, at the time of the survey, than Jackson Carlaw who has just stepped aside as leader of the Scottish Conservatives because he felt he wasn’t up to the job. If only Williamson, Jenrick and others had similar honour.

TO those readers who fear, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, having to go to hospital for an appointment, you have little to worry about. From my experience of St James’s Hospital in Leeds during the lockdown, and more recently, every possible precaution has been taken.

Telephone calls in advance to check your health. Hand sanitisers at the hospital. Every patient asked to wear a face mask provided by the NHS. A renewed focus on cleanliness. Staff, including consultants, in full hospital scrubs. And appointments running to time to avoid a build-up of patients in the waiting room.

I can’t fault it. The challenge, however, will be finding a way for hospitals to see more outpatients as the country – and the NHS – become more accustomed to living with Covid.

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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James Mitchinson