Peter Box: Convention of the North shows region won’t settle for second best any longer

Wakefield Council leader Councillor Peter Box
Wakefield Council leader Councillor Peter Box
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WhilE the North’s response to under-investment and inequalities over the past few years may have been loud, it has all too often been disparate and we have allowed the competition for resources to override the need to co-operate. As a result, the North has rarely spoken 
with one voice, making us easier to ignore.

For the past couple of years, the five West Yorkshire Leaders have been advocating the idea of a Council of the North as a means of bringing together civic leaders to try and create a common agenda. Colleagues across the North are now on board, and as a result this Thursday sees the first Convention of the North being held in Newcastle.

There has never been a more important time to come together to address the big issues that affect this area and to speak with a single voice. Of course it won’t be easy; “the North” isn’t a single entity – areas are varied with urban, rural and coastal communities facing challenges that in many cases are both different and complex. But I believe that we can, and must, work together to challenge Whitehall to invest in the key common issues that we face right across the North. We can’t allow our diversity to become a weakness but instead we must showcase it as a strength.

We won’t settle for second best from Whitehall any more. The convention will bring together civic leaders, key business representatives, trade unions and civic society stakeholders for an inclusive cross party discussion which we hope will establish a ‘‘voice for the North’’ on important issues.

We will explore the potential of the North to contribute to, and drive, UK growth and we aim to set a shared northern ambition to work in partnership with Westminster to make sure they help us deliver it, and deliver it as quickly as possible.

Of course, we know it can’t be done overnight and that genuine economic rebalancing is a project for a generation, not a single parliament. This requires both a long-term commitment and a flexible approach to devolution and empowerment. The Convention for the North isn’t a vehicle to slow down devolution but rather to accelerate it and to get more people involved in shaping their future. In particular we will be discussing and debating the significance of our economic future, the case for investment in pan-northern transport and the importance of a northern approach to skills which will help to meet the needs of residents and business, as we see the growth of robotics and the newer technologies.

Places like my own city of Wakefield have been highlighted as being particularly vulnerable in terms of potential job losses with the growth of robotics. Getting things right now will put us ahead of the game rather than playing catch up in a few years’ time. We need to look forward and future proof our economy. By way of example the Leeds City Region is the largest functional economic area outside London and the South East and its success is essential to the North and the country as a whole.

Bringing the City Region’s productivity in line with the national average would add £10 billion to the economy. That would not only have a huge impact on the national economy but also on the lives of most of our residents. But perhaps the most glaring example of investment inequality is the one that affects most of us, most directly, and that is transport.

The recent chaos caused by the introduction of new timetables created problems for many thousands of people who use public transport to get to and from work, for parents getting their children to school or others just wanting to visit relatives or friends.

We all know that there have been chronic delays in infrastructure investment over many years. The inequality in funding between the North and London isn’t an urban myth, it’s a fact. Figures for the Institute of Public Policy Research North think tank show a continuing disparity between transport spending per head of population. In London it’s almost 10 times more than that in Yorkshire.

The figures are stark – Yorkshire and the Humber will get £190 per head compared with London £1,940 per head for transport spend in the coming years. That simply can’t be right and it’s got to change.

We need the investment to upgrade the rail connections between northern cities and towns and to improve our highway network. Better connectivity will bring us all clear social and economic benefits and help secure a better future for our young people.

So, in future, I want to see the North putting forward an annual budget submission to the Chancellor to make sure that we can’t be marginalised as we have been in the past.

We will make sure that Government not only recognises our potential but invest in it. For the first time there will be a single voice and all of us need to make sure that it can’t be ignored.

Councillor Peter Box CBE is Leader of Wakefield Council.