Years of broken promises, despite tub-thumping about giving our part of the world a fair deal after decades of starving it of money, have bred a depth of scepticism that both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will struggle to overcome.
Even yesterday’s announcement of devolved powers and an elected mayor for York and North Yorkshire isn’t going to convince many that the Government is doing anything like enough for the North, however much the deal is spun as levelling up in action.
It has taken 15 years to drag a devolution agreement for North Yorkshire out of London. Welcome though it is, the snail’s-pace progress to get to this point is hardly evidence that transforming the fortunes of the North is a priority.
We have to wait and see what the High Speed Rail Group’s latest report on levelling up tomorrow has to say, but my hunch is that its verdict won’t be a ringing endorsement of progress.
That’s because in recent months, business organisations including the CBI have said nothing like enough is happening. And only last week, the Institute for Public Policy Research pointed out that here in Yorkshire, we get the least spent on us by the Government of any regional population in the country – £15,540 per head, compared with £19,231 in London. As if to underline what a con trick the promise of levelling up has been, the spending on every Londoner has increased by 25 per cent since the Government won power in 2019, compared with a 17 per cent increase in the North.
That is the very antithesis of levelling up. It is a continuation of a trend that has hobbled the North since at least the 1980s, with investment being pumped into the South-East and everywhere else getting far less, with Yorkshire at the back of the queue. This, of course, is a period when both our would-be Prime Ministers were in Cabinet, and Mr Sunak held the country’s purse-strings as Chancellor.
So forgive me a substantial degree of cynicism at the promises to level up the economy by both him and Ms Truss as they kick lumps out of each other to persuade Conservative members to hand over the keys to 10 Downing Street.
In particular, Ms Truss’s promise to revive the axed plan for a high-speed rail link across the Pennines just doesn’t hold water. I simply don’t believe her, not least because she offered no explanation of where funding would come from.
It’s also worth remembering that the Transport Secretary who chopped Yorkshire’s high-speed rail was Grant Shapps, one of Mr Sunak’s most prominent supporters.
If the former Chancellor becomes premier, the likelihood of the two men doing a U-turn and reinstating plans for a new line between Leeds and Manchester, or the HS2 link, is vanishingly remote, however compelling the business case is for better rail creating jobs.
Empty promises made on a campaign trail over the next month won’t wash with people in Yorkshire’s towns and cities.
They know that the last three years have not brought any new investment to the places they live. On the contrary, they’ve seen problems grow worse, with services struggling to cope and councils cutting essential functions because their budgets are so tight.
The Conservatives who promised so much to the North have been left badly exposed on the issue of levelling up, and they know it. Much of that is down to the empty boosterism of Boris Johnson, whose habit of saying what people wanted to hear was never likely to be backed up with the hard cash to make it into reality.
But a refusal by both Ms Truss and Mr Sunak to repudiate that dishonesty in the delivery of policy undermines their claims to be committed to transforming the fortunes of the North.
And expediency in wooing Tory members who are predominantly in Southern constituencies means neither is likely to regard levelling up as a priority, especially given how jittery some of the party’s heartlands are after a couple of thumping by-election losses.
Whoever wins will be much more concerned with shoring up support in Southern areas where there may be an electoral threat from the Lib Dems than trying to hang on to voters in the red wall seats who voted Conservative for the first time in 2019. The North-South divide continues to grow worse, not better. Levelling up is destined to go down as one of those empty political slogans that never amounted to anything, like “back to basics” in the 1990s or “the big society” a decade ago.
Ultimately, the claims by the two people vying for the top job about their plans for the North lack credibility. Too little has happened for them to be remotely believable.