GIVE me time. By all accounts, Jim O’Neill – the Treasury Minister tasked with delivering George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse – looked a forlorn figure as he pleaded for patience.
With the Government unable to honour pre-election expectations, Lord O’Neill, a former boss of Goldman Sachs and the Chancellor’s right-hand man, told a major conference in Manchester, the one city to prosper from the Powerhouse: “We have to get this right, and we have to be in it for the long haul.”
I agree. Try telling that, Lord O’Neill, to the people of Yorkshire whose promised road and rail improvements have been delayed, whose homes and businesses have been repeatedly flooded because of inadequate investment in river defences and all those trying to make sense of the Department of Business, Industry and Skills closing its Sheffield regional office – a decision that totally contradicts the Northern Powerhouse.
As the Tory peer ventured to Manchester, Universities and Science Minister Joseph “Jo” Johnson – younger brother of the omnipresent Boris – was being torn to shreds in Parliament over the decision to make 247 Sheffield civil servants redundant.
After his colleague Anna Soubry’s contemptuous performance when the decision was first announced, I thought that Mr Johnson might have been better prepared.
Not a bit of it. His defence was so feeble that it compared unfavourably with Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss and her ineptness over the floods. A Minister – and Government – committed to the North should have foreseen the questions when Paul Blomfield, the Sheffield Central MP, rose to his feet.
Question one. Why does the Government’s 90-day consultation not include the rationale behind the closure decision? If Ministers believe this move is in the public interest, they should publish the “business case”.
Next. Why is there a reluctance to consider alternatives? Another important point as the decision could be the precursor to other Government jobs being axed from the St Paul’s Place complex in Sheffield.
And so it went on. Why, asked an incredulous Mr Blomfield, did the documentation sent to redundancy-threatened civil servants say the 90-day consultation will close on May 2 when the closure of the Sheffield site is to be finalised by the end of March? It suggests that this consultation is a sham.
However, he saved his best question for last: “How much money will the proposal to move all policy jobs to London save?”
Unsurprisingly, Mr Johnson ducked the question. “I will come back later,” he said lamely. Yet, when he did, he pointed to the “BIS 2020” framework which is intended to deliver savings of £350m by 2020.
Mr Blomfield was not satisfied. The interrogation went on. “My question was: how much money is saved specifically by moving 247 policy jobs from Sheffield to London?”
The hapless Minister’s reply? “It is difficult to disaggregate a specific item in an overall programme change.” Try explaining this jargon to the good people of Sheffield, and Yorkshire, in plain English.
The evasiveness was too much for Clive Betts, another Sheffield MP. “May I ask the question a different way around? If the Department pursued its restructuring and the BIS 2020 programme, but left the jobs in Sheffield, how much more would that cost?” he asked.
Another non-response followed. “Again, I am unable to provide a disaggregated breakdown of that figure because we are talking about a system change,” said a flustered Mr Johnson. “We must bear in mind that the Department’s current locations are legacy locations, which are the result of legacy decisions and ad hoc organisational changes over a long period of time.”
What does this mean? More job losses in the future? To me, Government promises to relocate civil servants from London to the regions are now redundant.
When asked by Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh if this episode was a “serious blow” to the Northern Powerhouse’s credibility, Mr Johnson disagreed. “We will be moving a number of the jobs, and some jobs will become available in London, so the policy expertise that resides in Sheffield will not be lost,” he said.
Is he suggesting that those concerned can commute to the capital? Like his bumbling brother, Mr Johnson lives in a parallel universe. For, while his Orpington constituency enjoys superfast train links to London, HS2 is still two decades down the line here.
Such nonsensical responses explain why Lord O’Neill looked, and sounded, desperate as he pleaded for time.
Let me be of assistance. Why doesn’t Lord O’Neill and his team move to Sheffield so he can preside over the Northern Powerhouse from St Paul’s House?
If he did, the Minister might understand the public’s anger over the preordained betrayal of Sheffield – and the mistrust that has been fermenting for a year across Yorkshire as the economic fortunes of cities across the North flounder according to the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
It couldn’t be simpler – or more symbolic.