David Cameron has insisted the North/South divide can still be bridged as he put a multi-billion pound investment in Yorkshire’s transport network at the heart of his election offer to the region.
The Prime Minister said there was “no doubt” in his mind that pouring billions of pounds into improved roads and railways was the best way to give the Yorkshire economy the best opportunity of catching up with the wealthy South East.
Mr Cameron spent much of yesterday on a tour of the region, calling in at businesses in York, Halifax and Leeds over the course of the day – including a visit to the Yorkshire Post head office in Leeds.
He said the success of some thriving urban areas within the region proved the North has the potential for huge economic growth, and highlighted figures which showed employment levels have risen in Yorkshire faster than any other part of the country since 2010.
“I think it is bridgeable,” he said of the lingering gap with the South East economy. “It’s wrong to believe there’s a simple North/South divide. Things are more complex than that.
“There are some city areas in the North of England doing extremely well; there are very poor parts of the Midlands and the South. It’s much more complicated than just North/South.
“But there’s no doubt in my mind one of the biggest changes you can bring is via transport. Transport makes a huge difference. Imagine our country without the M1 or the A1. Imagine not having an East Coast Mainline as good as we have. Transport makes a massive difference.”
The Prime Minister stressed that the new high-speed rail line linking London to Yorkshire and Manchester remains central to his long-term economic plan, but accepted the “battle” over public opinion is yet to be won.
The Commons treasury committee this week became the latest body to question the case for HS2, raising concerns about the business case for the new line.
“This Government is putting such emphasis on infrastructure in particular,” Mr Cameron said. “HS2 is a big part of that for the future, and so we’ve got to win the public battle for HS2.
“I recognise battle is being joined, and I am determined to win it.”
There is an acceptance in Downing Street that selling the £50bn scheme to the public has not been handled well, with an over-emphasis on the 250mph speed of the new trains rather than on the huge increase in capacity it will allow across the rail network.
Mr Cameron was also keen to stress that constructing HS2 will in no way hamper the Government’s plan to invest in Britain’s existing transport networks.
“I think certain people think that all the Government’s money is going to go on HS2, and there’s going to be no money for anything else,” the Prime Minister said.
“But people find it refreshing that if you look at the next Parliament, 2015 to 2020, the Government are going to spend three times more on other transport infrastructure, road and rail, than on HS2.
“All those things like the Northern Hub (rail improvement scheme), the electrification of the trans-Pennine (railway), the Leeds Trolleybus scheme – all those are separately funded, and well funded, as well as stage one of HS2.”
The new rail line, Mr Cameron said, will help to ensure that over the longer-term, the coming economic recovery will not be focused purely on wealthy parts of the South East.
“I’m absolutely determined that this economic recovery is going to be for every part of the country,” he said. “What happened over the last decade, where for every 10 jobs created in the South there was sort of one created in the North, that is just not acceptable. It’s got to be different this time.”
Nonetheless, Labour has made much over recent months of the fact that despite the rapidly-improving economic outlook, many people’s personal finances remain desperately tight.
Mr Cameron insisted his Government is doing all it can to help people with the cost of living, and highlighted the offer of sizeable grants to local authorities to freeze council tax bills for the past three years.
Speaking to an audience of employees at Portakabin on the outskirts of York earlier in the day, the Prime Minister had criticised the local Labour-run council for refusing to freeze council tax.
“We nationally have made available a council tax freeze for local councils for the last three years,” he said. “Sadly the Labour council in York decided not to freeze its council tax – though the money is there available.”