Louise Haigh: Time for North to seize the moment on devolution

Sheffield can be at the vanguard of a new Industrial Revolution if the Northern Powerhouse takes off.
Sheffield can be at the vanguard of a new Industrial Revolution if the Northern Powerhouse takes off.
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THE significant political projects tell a story and they capture time and place. Attlee’s ‘Win the Peace’, Macmillan’s ‘Winds of change’ and Blair’s ‘New Labour, New Britain’.

The Northern Powerhouse could rank alongside those projects but it suffers from a profound lack of ambition and it is failing to capture the hearts and minds of the millions of people in communities across the North who are needed to make it work but who fear it may be simply more of the same.

A ComRes poll from last year outlines the challenge: 44 per cent – almost half of Northerners – claimed not to have heard of the Northern Powerhouse. A further substantial block – 20 per cent – had heard of it but had no idea what it meant.

I’m not surprised.

As an opposition MP, I have a responsibility to point out the reality behind the Government’s slogans.

But I also have a duty to demonstrate how this empty slogan could become a meaningful reality.

The Northern Powerhouse must tell a new story, turning the page on the policies and attitudes which have not served our region well.

It must be our symbolic antithesis to the desperate 1980s and it must have an equal but opposite potency in the imagination of people here to those barren years.

If the Northern revival is to take root, it must take us away from an economy dominated by the City of London and a politics dominated by Westminster.

Sheffield today boasts 24,000 highly skilled manufacturing jobs, one of the largest apprentice facilities in Europe, a world-leading video game sector, highly successful IT and digital companies and two of the most innovative universities in the country. We can be the seat of the next industrial revolution, just as we were the last.

That story and those ambitions however, have been lost between the Treasury’s standard-issue devolution deals and the rushed, hushed closed-door signings in town halls, transferring only limited power. And as such this project is suffering.

The deal signed off by the Treasury amounted to about £30m a year for the Sheffield city region. Government directed cuts on the councils which make up that new city region have reached around £635m with about the same to come over the next four years.

The financial challenges are eye-watering.

So we need to take this agenda back and fight for our own idea of a Northern revival. Because the lesson is if we wait for Whitehall we will be waiting a long time.

Encouragingly, polls prove Northerners want local people running things and we want control over the things which affect our lives.

Perhaps that is a legacy of Thatcher – still burning bright; or perhaps that is a reaction against the South East dominated politics where London can, quite rightly, click its fingers and a £32bn Crossrail 2 project will be delivered whereas in cities across the North, bus services remain utterly pitiful and train services woefully behind our European counterparts.

So we need that control over the areas where we have lagged behind – like energy, internet services and transport.

But here in Yorkshire – where business start-ups are lower than any other English region and pay some £200 per week behind London – we need the power to change our economy for the better – tax raising powers, a new sub-regional body with more social control and participation directing investment into small business who nurture their employees and big ideas which can change the world in this century of technology; using the massive untapped potential of pension investments and procurement to fund the Sheffield of the future; influenced by a regional bank whose remit isn’t to maximise profit but to maximise the potential of our communities.

But we also need the power to respond to problems which are particularly profound in our own areas.

In Sheffield and cities across Yorkshire where low pay is more common than the South East, and dodgy employment practices easier to find, why do we not devolve the power of enforcement currently held by national government?

It is astonishing that when constituents approach me after being underpaid through new ropey practices because of the new National Living Wage, for instance, we have to wait for the Government to act.

A powerful regional mayor should have the funds to invest properly in skills, in innovation and link the fantastic work of the colleges and universities.

But we should also be able to insist that if we are all going to have a stake in the Northern revival then we will do things differently here and workers’ rights will be properly respected and everyone must share in the growth of our area.

Only then will we be able to own this idea. And in future we may forge a direction which jars with Westminster.

But surely that is the point?

We’ve waited too long for Whitehall to work for us. Now it’s time we did it ourselves and put forward an ambitious agenda of our own.

Then we really would be a powerhouse.

* Louise Haigh is the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley.

COMMUNITIES Secretary Greg Clark has expressed frustration at the lack of progress on devolution. Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, he said: “I would like to have seen Yorkshire alongside Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield at this point.

“If we want to continue the development of our great cities, then we have to make a transfer of power to local leaders. We need to turbo charge that agenda.”

Meanwhile Chancellor George Osborne said investment had risen 100 per cent since the Northern Powerhouse launch in 2014.