Ministers must concentrate on towns and not just Manchester if the North is to succeed, says metro mayor Ben Houchen

Tees Valley metro mayor Ben Houchen
Tees Valley metro mayor Ben Houchen
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The Government won’t be able to fully unleash the potential of the North of England unless it moves away from focusing on big cities and pays more attention to towns, a Tory metro mayor has claimed.

Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen told a fringe event at Conservative Party Conference that Ministers need a “more holistic approach” rather than concentrating on Manchester and Leeds.

And the Conservative, whose patch includes parts of the old North Riding of Yorkshire, said government policy does not currently speak to the 53 per cent of people in the North who don’t live in a city.

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His plea comes after a group of northern Labour MPs launched their own manifesto to reverse the growing divide between towns and cities. Last year The Yorkshire Post’s A Tale of Two Yorkshires series highlighted the trend for city populations to age at a much slower rate than less urban areas.

Mr Houchen told the event organised by the think-tank Policy Exchange: “We need to move our policy to unleash growth in the North away from being metropolitan city-centric, which invariably public policy always is because it has the greatest density of people and transport connectivity, buses, metros, tubes, are much more easy to implement in those areas.

“The difficulty is how do you take the 53 per cent of people in the North who don’t live in a city, and they don’t want to live in a city, they like the towns like Preston and Darlington and Middlesbrough and Gateshead, they want to live in these places, and government at the moment and policy at the moment doesn’t really speak to those people.

“And I think to unleash the North, we need to come up with a more holistic approach to how we include the North as a whole, rather than just Manchester, and often Leeds.”

The Tees Valley mayor has previously clashed with his Greater Manchester counterpart, Labour’s Andy Burnham, over his city getting a greater share of transport funding. And he recently claimed on Twitter that: “Manchester is not the North.”

At the event yesterday about unleashing the potential of the North, the former businessman said: “You have got to understand what the North is.

“I’m sure some people will have heard me say this before, and I certainly blame Whitehall civil servants and some of the mainstream media in this, whenever people want to talk about the North, they do one of two things.

“They come to the North East, and they’ll film some back alley in a really deprived area as if that is representative of the North which is always incorrect, or they go to Manchester.

“And while Manchester is an amazing city, I get a lot of stick for saying it but it is the second city, it is doing some amazing things, Manchester is not representative of the North.”

Henri Murison of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which represents civic and business leaders, said the purpose of the project, originally introduced by former Chancellor George Osborne in 2014 to drive economic growth in the North, had been misunderstood.

He said: “The role of Manchester, or Newcastle, or the Greater Middlesbrough, Tees Valley agglomeration, is not just to themselves, they serve a function to the places that surround them.

"And if they have the right relationship with those places then you can absolutely drive economic development that benefits not just the urban core but the places around it.

“This is a question that all parties have to answer, that there are more poor people in the centre of Manchester than there are in any of the towns around it it, like Rochdale.

“There is also the point that if you want to unlock the potential of the northern economy, educational disadvantage is highly correlated with many of these white working class communities that people think are in towns, but they are in cities as well.”