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Jayne Dowle: Why won’t ministers help Yorkshire to be hive of industry?

The Government could build firm economic foundations if it invested in South Yorkshire and apprenticeships.
The Government could build firm economic foundations if it invested in South Yorkshire and apprenticeships.
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I’D like to introduce Business Secretary Greg Clark to Liam, Rohan, Adam, Alex, Ashley and Mitch. Every single one of these lads left school this summer and has taken up an apprenticeship in engineering or construction.

These six are my son’s friends, but across our region there are thousands more like them – young men and women who want to stay local, work hard and invest in their own futures. Some people might be quite surprised to learn this. For too long now it’s been easy to dismiss our school-leavers as not interested in learning and working and taking responsibility for themselves.

It’s also been something of a default option to deride the modern apprenticeships scheme as inadequate and unattractive to today’s teenagers. It’s not perfect, I’m sure, but it’s certainly giving – from my observation point – an opportunity to those who wish to pursue what used to be called “a trade”.

No shame in that either. For too long now, the Government has been committed to a strangely schizophrenic attitude towards post-16 education and training. Promote further study and a university degree as the ideal (whilst raising tuition fees and committing graduates to a lifetime of debt), only grudgingly accept the alternative – vocational options in vital industries such as construction – and then bemoan the fact that we can’t build enough houses because we don’t have enough bricklayers.

If this contrary and contradictory philosophy doesn’t remind us why we need local industrial strategies, I don’t know what will. Healthy local, sub-regional and regional economies should mean jobs for all, reflecting the diversity of skills and qualifications needed to create thriving towns and cities.

You might think that Yorkshire, and in particular South Yorkshire, still reeling from the decline of the pits and heavy industries which once promised “jobs for life”, would benefit more than most from such an idea. However, yet again, we have been knocked back – our young people’s futures held hostage on the altar of political point-scoring and government hubris.

The first wave of local industrial strategies took in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Oxford-Cambridge corridor a few years ago. Just look at how these regions are prospering not just in terms of jobs, but in infrastructure investment and buoyant house prices, both markers of progress.

The second, announced just a week or so ago, covers the North East, Tees Valley, West of England, Leicester and Leicestershire, Cheshire and Warrington and the “Heart of the South West”.

It’s perplexing that the Sheffield City Region was left off the list. The area’s metro mayor, Dan Jarvis, had lobbied long and hard for South Yorkshire to be included.

The omission leaves Yorkshire as one of the largest UK regions not to benefit from an industrial strategy in any of its areas. However, this cavalier dismissal of major towns and cities, and countless communities in between, has its roots in the stand-off between Yorkshire civic leaders and the Government over the One Yorkshire devolution plans.

Although two councils in South Yorkshire, Doncaster and Barnsley, back One Yorkshire, ministers insist that the Sheffield City Region agreement must be honoured first and foremost. And so we find ourselves in a state of suspended animation which, against the background of Brexit, does business confidence no good whatsoever.

“Local industrial strategy” is a bit of a cumbersome term, but it’s a vital piece of policy which could bring enormous benefits to our part of the country. Such a plan should not be some amorphous document held at arm’s length by the Government. It should be a clear and coherent policy which contributes to a well-publicised way forward for our region in terms of education, training, employment and investment.

It should form a seamless underpinning between schools, colleges, universities, small businesses and multi-national corporations. Indeed, it ought to be a household word in every family.

And, yet again, we’ve been denied the chance that other regions have clearly benefited from. It’s so frustrating. I’m not thinking of myself. I’m thinking of the future, for my children and their children too. I’ve seen what economic prosperity has brought to places such as Leeds and Manchester. Why should South Yorkshire be left behind?

Do you think Mr Clark has given even a moment’s thought to lads like Liam, Rohan, Adam, Alex, Ashley and Mitch? The short answer is “no”. If he had, he wouldn’t have knocked us back yet again.

These lads have little interest in party politics or government machinations. However, they do have the gumption to go out and find useful employment. And they will go on to build our houses, design our machinery and perhaps become industry leaders of the future.

To their huge credit and sometimes against personal and educational odds, they have developed confidence in themselves. So why doesn’t this Government have confidence in us?