Rachel Reeves: Short-changing of North needs to be stopped

It is now just over three years since the terrible floods that hit many parts of Yorkshire. For those people and businesses lucky enough not to be directly affected, memories of the flooding caused might have faded.

But for people such as Seb McGowan, the owner of Viva Cuba in Kirkstall in my constituency, there is a painful financial reminder of the Boxing Day floods. Since the floods, Seb and other business owners have seen their insurance premiums double.

Over Christmas I met Seb with Hannah Mason from The Climbing Lab in Kirkstall to talk about the Government’s failure to commit the money needed for adequate flood defences to prevent a recurrence of those floods. Despite relentless pressure from me, the city council, businesses and campaigners, Government ministers in London are dragging their feet when it comes to a permanent solution to protect Leeds and the wider region.

However, it is a very different story in the South when homes alongside the River Thames are at risk. While we are forced to wait and hope for proper flood protection, those living in the Prime Minister Theresa May’s Thames-side constituency of Maidenhead are more fortunate.

The PM’s website still carries a statement from Theresa May welcoming “the very good news” in 2015 that her local flood alleviation scheme was to be brought forward by two years.

The varying treatment of flood risks in different parts of the country and how funds are fast-tracked for some areas shows the Government’s indifference to our region and entrenches the North-South divide.

But the differences run much deeper than the issue of flood protection. The Government effectively admitted the disparity when former Chancellor George Osborne created the Northern Powerhouse in 2014. Its aim was to address the North-South economic imbalance, attract investment and get a fair deal for our region.

Since then, however, the Government has failed to live up to its pledges. Osborne has long since gone to spend more time making money and his successors seems to have lost interest in the project.

This is bad news for the 15 million people in the North and the hopes of growing our economy to create more jobs and greater prosperity.

The continuing North-South divide was highlighted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think-tank last month. While London received £708 per head on average for transport, the North received just £289 per head. Planned transport spending per capita in London is £4,155 against just £1,600 earmarked for the North.

On top of that gap, there was last year’s timetable fiasco that led to the cancellation of thousands of rail services and misery for travellers across the region. As The Yorkshire Post has argued, it is scandalous that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is still in a job. In his latest blunder, Grayling claimed this week there was “nothing wrong” with giving a £13m Brexit ship contract to a firm with no ships.

London is to get its new £15.4bn Crossrail service in the near future, albeit after some delays. Yet, the HS2 rail link for the North is plagued by delays and cost overruns. Many people feel that with the completion of HS2 decades away, the Government should prioritise funding on our local and regional rail services.

It is not just transport needs in the North that have taken a huge hit because of Government spending decisions. The North has been hammered by austerity since 2010. Since then, total public spending in the North has fallen by £6.3bn in real terms – more than any other region. One million children in the North live in poverty.

The evidence of the deliberate Government decision to deprive our region of funds is everywhere, from the rising number of people sleeping rough to our over-stretched hospitals and understaffed schools. According to the IPPR, weekly pay has fallen by £21 in the North in real terms since 2008.

We do have major strengths – our great universities, successful businesses, our entrepreneurs, our vibrant culture and beautiful countryside.

However, there are challenges facing the North – many of which are due to the Government letting us down.

There are a number of potential solutions. We need to give local people a bigger say on key decisions that affect the region by transferring more powers away from Westminster. I am glad there is growing support for the One Yorkshire devolution plan. But it is a disgrace that while most other major cities have got a devolution deal my city, Leeds, is left waiting while Government ministers sit on their hands.

We need to see an end to the Government’s short-changing of the North. The Government must also commit to upgrading the train services between our major cities and between our towns and cities and ensure super-fast broadband in our rural communities in North Yorkshire. The Government’s New Year’s resolutions should be to end the investment disparity that has gone on for too long, build flood defences, take the franchise away from Northern rail and sack Chris Grayling.