THE Conservative leadership contest has spawned some astonishing admissions about the North-South divide and the impact of nine years of Government austerity.
Jeremy Hunt confessed that cuts in social care and policing went “too far”, while Boris Johnson promised to reverse police cuts of 20,000 officers. Another defeated challenger, Michael Gove, told The Yorkshire Post our region needed “far better” transport links and infrastructure and conceded more should be done to bridge the gap between the North and South.
Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss, a Johnson supporter, admitted the North has received insufficient investment “for generations”.
In the desperate attempts of Johnson and Hunt to win the votes of the 160,000 Tory members who will decide their fate, they conveniently ignore the fact that their Government took the decisions which starved the North of investment.
In my role as chair of the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, I launched an inquiry this week into regional investment and growth which will consider whether the North and other regions are getting a fair deal.
It is five years since the Government launched its Northern Powerhouse strategy amid much fanfare and it is only right that we put its efforts to attract finance and investment to the North under the microscope.
The initial signs are not good. One of our first witnesses, Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, warned the North faced “massive” cuts to regeneration after Brexit because of the loss of EU funds spent in the region.
His warning came after Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington admitted that there was still “a lot to be done” to deliver the Northern Powerhouse plan.
After years of doing nothing, the leadership race has now triggered a wave of Tory promises that will vanish as quickly as they were made. Frontrunner Boris Johnson has pledged to support Northern Powerhouse Rail, the proposed £39bn high-speed link from Liverpool to Hull.
But these are just more empty words from a failing Government that should be judged on its appalling record. As I highlighted in the Commons, people will be forced to endure the misery of journeys on Pacer trains well into 2020 after the Government admitted it will not honour a promise to get rid of the creaking units by the end of the year.
The reality is this Government has short-changed the North for years. It will continue to do so after the promises made during their internal leadership contest are quietly forgotten. Just take a look at the facts behind all the warm words since former Chancellor George Osborne unveiled the Northern Powerhouse plan. According to the IPPR North think-tank, transport spending rose by more than twice as much per person in London at £330 per person compared to £149 per person in the North since the launch of the Northern Powerhouse in 2014.
The IPPR’s latest analysis shows between 2009/10 and 2017/18 the North has seen a £3.6bn cut in public spending compared to a £4.7bn rise in real terms in the combined area of the South East and South West. London’s public spending was cut by £256m – a fraction of the figure suffered by the North.
Since 2014, the IPPR says that 200,000 more children in the North are now living in a poor household. That is part of the depressing legacy of this Government’s policies.
I am convinced, once this leadership contest is resolved, that London MP Boris Johnson and Surrey MP Jeremy Hunt will both retreat to their comfort zone and focus on the interests of their friends in the South.
We have already seen evidence about who is at the top of Johnson’s priority list with the figures that I uncovered about his plans to lift income tax thresholds. Just six per cent of taxpayers in Yorkshire and the Humber will benefit from his plan to raise the threshold for the top rate of income tax from £50,000 to £80,000, while almost half the beneficiaries are in London and the South East.
That is why I am behind the brilliant Power Up The North campaign, led by The Yorkshire Post and other regional publications, to demand the Government sets out an Industrial Strategy for the North, backed by greater commitments on transport, housing and other badly needed investment.
With Johnson and Hunt saying whatever they think it will take to persuade Tory members – who represent just 0.2 per cent of the population – to hand them the keys to Downing Street, there has never been a more important time to demand clarity.
My great fear is once a new Tory leader and Prime Minister is chosen it will be ‘business as usual’ – tax cuts for the better off in the South at the expense of public services and investment in the North. We cannot allow that to happen.
The first priority for the new Tory leader, most likely Boris Johnson despite his determination to avoid scrutiny at almost every turn, must be to carry out an urgent review of public spending and Government priorities.
Instead of wasting a fortune on vanity projects like the doomed and costly Garden Bridge project across the River Thames and his equally doomed ‘Boris Island’ airport, Johnson needs to get a grip and focus on the needs of the whole of the UK.
The new Tory leader must listen to the North and put in place the policies and investment to drive the productivity and growth we need to create jobs and opportunities for everyone.
Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West. She also chairs Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee which launched a new inquiry this week into regional investment.