The North must be placed at the front of the queue for public investment for at least the next 25 years, if the wealth gap with the prosperous south-east is to be narrowed, one of the region’s leading politicians has said.
Exactly five years after the then Chancellor, George Osborne, invented the concept of a Northern Powerhouse, there was a danger of it becoming reduced to a soundbite like David Cameron’s “big society”, the Manchester metro mayor and former chief secretary to the Treasury, Andy Burnham, said.
“If this continues, the corrosive cynicism that we see in our politics will only reach new levels,” Mr Burnham told a Yorkshire conference of political and business leaders to discuss the first report from the independent UK2070 commission into the country’s regional inequalities.
Mr Burnham said the report, which labels the UK as one of the most regionally unbalanced countries in the industrialised world, was “an authoritative, inarguable, searing anatomy of a woefully divided country”.
He added: “The north south divide is not a product of northern whingeing. It’s a matter of serious social injustice on the scale of Germany in the early 1990s.
“Westminster, under all governments of all colours, has failed the North because it has run an economic model since the 1970s, and 80s, which has focused on giving more to the parts of the country that are already the most economically advanced.”
He added: “The referendum in 2016 was as much an instruction from the British public to Westminster to reassess its relationship with England as with Brussels. So far, Westminster has only focused on the latter.”
Describing the report as “a clarion call for change, which cuts through the fog currently enveloping British politics”, he said the momentum behind the Power Up the North campaign championed by The Yorkshire Post and other newspapers across the region, was “beginning to feel like a watershed moment”.
He said: “Nothing should be off limits in coming up with a financial plan for the North. It means putting the North at the front of the queue for investment, the very front, for the next 25 years or more.”
The North needs a London-style system of investment in transport, which caps the amount commuters spend in a day, giving them a financial incentive to use the train or bus, Mr Burnham said.
“It can’t be right that the fare for a single bus journey in the North of England can be as much as £4 when it’s capped at £1.50 in London,” he said.
“If someone were to travel around the North using public transport, they could spend tens of pounds in any day trying to navigate, a dilapidated, poor failing system.”
The UK2070 report is also backed by the former Trade Secretary Lord Heseltine, who spoke at yesterday’s conference in Leeds.
The Commons Treasury Committee has announced an inquiry into regional imbalances in the economy. Its chair, the former education secretary Nicky Morgan, said: “People experience the chasm which exists between various parts of the UK through their day to day lives.”