The Autumn Statement is the Chancellor’s last chance to deliver for the North - Andrew Vine
With an election only a year away, residents of Yorkshire and the rest of the vast, neglected swathe of England that so often appears to be an alien land to the Government know that time is running out for anything at all to be done towards levelling up the economy.
Jeremy Hunt must offer something if his party has any chance of avoiding wipeout across the north, especially in the red wall seats of West and South Yorkshire, arguably let down worst of all because they were promised so much and have seen so little for it.
He has to set out steps to close the north-south divide, to improve transport, promote economic growth, especially in new green industries, and give young people the chances they deserve.
Yorkshire people know perfectly well this will not happen overnight and certainly not before they deliver their verdict at the ballot box on the Government’s performance.
Yet if his autumn statement is to be anything other than a cynical exercise in pandering to Conservative heartlands in the south, the Chancellor must demonstrate he understands the needs and justified demands of the north for greater investment.
If he fails to do so, then the Prime Minister’s claim to be taking decisions for the long-term prosperity of the entire country, as opposed to short-term political expediency, will be exposed as hollow.
Last week’s Cabinet reshuffle was presented by Rishi Sunak as putting the team in place to deliver change for the better. Let’s hope he has told his Chancellor to produce tangible evidence of a strategy for doing so in the region where the Prime Minister is an MP.
Against a backdrop of creaking public services, councils at risk of going bust and uncertainty in both industry and agriculture about what the Government’s plans for the future are, the need for such a strategy is pressing.
A recitation of good intentions by Mr Hunt with nothing to back it up will be as useless as the empty promises about levelling up. Nor will the north be fooled if he attempts to recycle the pledges about there being more money for transport as a consequence of the last northern leg of HS2 being cancelled.
Lower inflation gives Mr Hunt at least some good news to present, as does the fact he has more money to spend than he might have anticipated at this time last year.
But with a fractious Parliamentary party engaged in endless infighting and opinion polls pointing towards the loss of traditionally safe Conservative seats in the south, the Chancellor may be more concerned with shoring up that blue wall than helping the former Labour heartlands in the north.
If he bows to pressure to use whatever money he has for some form of tax cut to appease the right wing of his own party instead of spending it on vital infrastructure, many voters in the north will only be further convinced that the Government does not have their interests at heart.
And Mr Hunt ought to have something else in mind as he considers how an area that is home to nearly a quarter of the country’s population will receive his statement. These are the all-too-apparent signs of economic decline that sadden and worry everybody who takes pride and a sense of ownership in the places they live.
They are there to be seen on the streets of every town and city in Yorkshire – empty and boarded up shops, pubs and restaurants, each a silent witness to the ravages of Covid and changes for the worse in traditional patterns of shopping and socialising. If Mr Hunt fails to maintain business rates support, there will be even more closures.
Last week, the British Retail Consortium, UK Hospitality and the British Independent Retail Association were among the signatories to a letter sent to the Chancellor warning that if he abandons the support package and presses ahead with his previously-announced plan to increase rates by inflation next April, it will cost retail an extra £480m a year and hospitality £234m.
Here in the north, where lower disposable incomes than more affluent parts of the country mean retail and hospitality already face an uphill struggle, businesses would suffer especially badly.
Our county expects to see Mr Hunt making a real effort to give us the investment and support we have so long deserved.