THERE was so much bluster from David Cameron and co about the Northern Powerhouse that the whole idea was in danger of collapse. Those of us who live here were especially sceptical. And there is nothing more cynical than a cynical Northerner.
It takes something to convince us. And that something might just be Prime Minister Theresa May, who has set out her vision for how the Northern Powerhouse should come to be.
One thing is clear. If we don’t get behind her, it will never happen. We need to shake off that cynicism, seize the initiative and take advantage of this opportunity as it presents itself.
Mrs May says that power and decisions have rested with London and the South East for too long. She’s right, but we’ve heard this from politicians before. I hope that two things happen from now on: that she proves by actions and not just words that she is sincere, and that she listens to what her friends in the North tell her.
Central to the cynicism which surrounded the original Northern Powerhouse was the high-handed attitude of its architect George Osborne, the former Chancellor. He always appeared to think that “the North” began and ended at Manchester.
Vague on geography, and unconvincing on the details, there was nothing concrete underpinning his grand gestures. In her customary understated way, Mrs May seems to be showing rather more clarity. At the heart of her plans is strong support for devolution. As she points out, the population of our region is five million, but until recently we have been lacking the political voice this sheer number of people demands. She reassures us that the devolution deal for Sheffield City Region is to go ahead, with a new Mayor to be elected next May.
Until now, this has hardly been the most riveting of subjects for many of us. Such manoeuvrings can appear dull to the casual non-political observer. It’s time we remembered though that effective regional government affects all our lives, in big ways and small. We owe it to ourselves to engage in the political process as far as we can. If we need any reminder of how people power can make a difference, we need look no further than the decision reached by the EU referendum.
I’m pleased that Mrs May has also put transport right at the heart of her vision. In total, her Government is making a record £13bn investment in roads and rail across the region. This will mean new trains and new railway stations have already opened Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge. It also means improvements to the M62, the M1 and A1. It would be good too if some of the budget could be reserved to give attention to trunk roads too, including the A64 north of York, for example, the scene of far too many accidents.
And, imagine if under this new, improved version of the Northern Powerhouse, the trans-Pennine Tunnel connecting Yorkshire and Manchester could actually be started? If it came off, it would be the most ambitious road scheme in the UK for more than five decades. It would turn the focus of the country on its axis – from East to West, rather than North to South.
If it did happen, it would reignite the economy in countless towns which have been left behind since the demise of the mills and heavy industry. My home town of Barnsley, for a start. We’re only 35 miles from the centre of Manchester, but the journey – whether by road or rail – is almost as arduous and time-consuming as it was in Victorian times. This is simply not good enough for the 21st century.
Key to economic prosperity in our region is connectivity. If we think of the post-industrial regeneration of the North, we look to the big cities – including Leeds and Sheffield – as shining beacons of stable employment, strong retail activity and relatively buoyant house prices.
Our towns, despite the best efforts of many local councils, have been left behind. Yet think how Yorkshire really could boom if we had seamless connections between town, city and countryside. As Mrs May puts it, we should be given every opportunity to “pool our strengths”. For this to work though, we need local government and business leaders to work together instead of competing with each other. Yorkshire, as the biggest county in Great Britain, and we are certainly diverse. Yet if everyone can put aside differences and work for the greater good, we will become a much more cohesive region.
And speaking of countryside, it is fantastic news that Mrs May has backed a Yorkshire-led bid to bring cycling’s World Road Championships to this county in 2019. The Government will underwrite the event and back it with £24m of investment to promote the event and encourage people to visit Yorkshire and enjoy the beauty of the landscape for themselves. And of course, they will go home and tell everyone else about how great we really are.
The new Prime Minister has not forgotten her friends in the North. In return, we must show her what we are really capable of when we have the right Government support.