NEXT month, we find out who our new Prime Minister will be, and their priorities for Britain over the coming years.
At the top of their agenda should be addressing our country’s regional imbalances. For too long, there has been a deep sense of frustration that communities outside of London and the South East have not seen their fair share of funding, powers and resources.
Research carried out by the London Finance Commission found that local government in the UK controls only 1.6 per cent of GDP compared to six per cent in France, 11 per cent in Germany and 16 per cent in Sweden. Yet it is local government that delivers around a quarter of all public services.
The inevitable consequence is that decisions, however well meaning, do not reflect the needs or opportunities of local areas. This compounds inequalities in many communities where growth has often been in sectors where the jobs are insecure and the wages low.
One prime example is in Barnsley – jobs lost in the town’s many collieries and related industries have been replaced with jobs in vast distribution centres. At the same time, Barnsley has been the authority hardest hit by Government austerity, with a 40 per cent reduction in its day-to-day council spending since 2009/10.
In places like this, it is often a race to the bottom. According to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, across our former coalfields there are 50 jobs for every 100 working age adults; and young people are faced with the choice of either accepting those jobs or moving elsewhere.
The Northern Powerhouse agenda, introduced five years ago by George Osborne, hasn’t made things better. In fact, for many Northerners, life has got worse in the last five years.
Figures released by the IPPR revealed that there are now 200,000 more Northern children living in poverty than there were five years ago. People’s pay has also risen far less than the national average – £12 a week in this region compared to £19 nationally.
At the same time, the number of jobs in the North paid less than the Living Wage has risen by 150,000. Creating jobs is one thing, but creating the right jobs, that offer career development, a Living Wage and job satisfaction, is quite another. It’s no surprise that our most talented young people are attracted by the bright lights of the big cities. This so-called “brain drain” perpetuates the cycle of inequality, further eroding communities that have already suffered so much.
These disadvantages are underpinned by a systemic lack of investment in our communities and in essential infrastructure. Over the last five years, transport spending has risen by twice as much per person in London as in the North – so it’s hardly a surprise that, in parallel, the number of cancelled and late trains on Transpennine Express and Northern trains has more than doubled.
It is, therefore, a bitter pill to swallow when out-of-touch Ministers in the Westminster bubble suggest that Pacer trains could be used as “community hubs” once they’re finally retired from service. People who have put up with an inadequate transport network for far too long don’t view Pacers with a nostalgic glow. They feel angry that they are forced to travel in what are essentially buses on wheels while, in the south east, billions of pounds is being spent on Crossrail.
For the first time here in South Yorkshire, we now have an ambitious transport strategy that ties into a pan-Northern strategy. It outlines the connectivity we need to grow our economy – but we need the resource to deliver it. Resources that are increasingly flowing to the South East.
These are just some of the reasons people in regions like ours voted so overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. Across the Yorkshire and Humber region, 58 per cent of voters backed leave, compared to 52 per cent nationally. In Barnsley, the figures were even higher, with 68 per cent voting for Brexit. People tell me that they see very little to be optimistic about, and can’t see how things can get better for themselves or their families.
That’s why I have collaborated with other Metro-Mayors from across the country to argue for fairer allocation of funding across Britain’s regions. And I have long been calling on Government to set out its proposed model for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund – the proposed replacement for European funding streams and the Local Growth Fund once they come to and end – but they are yet to discuss even the most basic detail as to how the Fund will be allocated.
We need a Prime Minister that is serious about tackling the fundamental inequalities in our country. Only when we do this can we begin to close the gap between London and the rest of the UK; and heal the deep divisions that have become so apparent in recent years. Whoever takes office next month, I will be fighting tooth and nail to make that case to them.
Dan Jarvis is the Sheffield City Region mayor and Labour MP for Barnsley Central.