I KNOW the Prime Minister has a lot on her plate but I wish she would find some time to think about matters close to home. It’s only 170 miles from her office in Downing Street to Leeds. However, our region, and the North in general, might as well be on another planet.
I’m not the only one to think this. Former Treasury minister turned cross-bench peer Lord Jim O’Neill has accused the Prime Minister of dropping the Northern Powerhouse idea that was supported wholeheartedly by his former bosses George Osborne and David Cameron.
He’s particularly concerned about transport. As he should be, given that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling doesn’t see fit to give Transport for the North the same powers as Transport for London. If this isn’t a case of patronising misunderstanding from Westminster, I don’t know what is.
Lord O’Neill is also worried about our reputation abroad. He argues that if the Northern Powerhouse slips off the public agenda, then politicians and investors in the Middle East, for example, will not even know we exist. It’s an interesting point. Whether we live in the North or the South of England, we all suffer from national introspection. In global terms, this is an indulgence we can ill-afford as we prepare to depart from Europe.
Mrs May’s neglect is understandable, I guess. With Brexit and ministers misbehaving, not to mention the NHS in crisis and Boris Johnson in freefall, she’s not got much time to look North and concentrate on putting us to the top of her “to-do” list.
As far as I’m aware, she hasn’t been up to Yorkshire on a public visit since the General Election campaign in June when she accused campaigners against the closure of Huddersfield Royal Infirmary’s A&E department of “scaremongering”. It wasn’t really the best way to endear herself to the friends she still has in the North.
The poor woman is obviously struggling, so I thought I would give her a hand. Or a quick briefing if you like on what she needs to know about the North right now. I hope that this will be helpful, especially if finds herself stuck in a lift with Lord O’Neill.
First she must know that the North is a very big place. One size – or central government approach – definitely does not fit all. What Yorkshire needs is different from what Manchester needs, and again different from the North East and Cumbria and the Lake District.
With respect to Lord O’Neill, this has always been my issue with the Northern Powerhouse as a concept. We’re also about more than big thriving cities such as Leeds. We’re about the towns and villages left behind in the late 20th century as heavy industry and rural practices began to under seismic change. Too often, these communities remain cut off. Not just in terms of public transport, but in economic, social and cultural terms too. Apart from a brief period under Labour, when organisations such as the now-defunct Yorkshire Forward helped to foster economic growth across our region, no government has really got under the skin of the North.
What a waste. If only those welded to their Westminster desks could see that up here we have huge resources and potential which could be harnessed for the good of the entire country. Why shouldn’t Channel Four be in Leeds, for instance? There is no rule that says that major production facilities should all be based in a small corner of London. Our colleges and universities produce creative and technically-adept students just as talented as those in the capital. Why shouldn’t they have a chance to find stimulating employment on their doorstep?
If you look at the biggest picture, Mrs May, you will see it makes national sense. London is seriously overcrowded, housing costs almost impossible for working people to meet. Why not spread the load and take advantage of the capacity in the North?
Just in case the Prime Minister wonders what qualifies me to speak with authority on such matters, this week marks 14 years since I moved back to Yorkshire from London, where I had lived and worked for around the same period of time. The North/South divide was pretty bad then, but it’s got worse since.
I’ve never known such disparity in terms of incomes, house prices and educational standards in schools. What’s more worrying, however, is the insidious undercurrent of lack of understanding, if not outright dismissal of the North of England and everything we stand for. It’s as if we are regarded as a drain on the country’s fortunes, the threat which could topple the precarious hold London and the South East has achieve dover the past decade or so.
An effective government, and a sensible Prime Minister, should have the humility to accept this and embrace what the North has to offer instead of constantly attempting to keep us in our place.