West Yorkshire's new metro mayor should be able to phone the Treasury direct to make their voice heard, says Tory Minister Simon Clarke

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Simon Clarke looks over his shoulder while sitting in a conference room in The Yorkshire Post's office in Leeds as he talks about his motivation for getting into politics, pointing at a July 1984 front page splash on the wall detailing the devastating fire at York Minster.

The Tory MP wasn't born until three months later, making him at 35 one of the youngest Ministers in Boris Johnson's newly-invigorated government.

Treasury Minister Simon Clarke. Pic: Simon Hulme

Treasury Minister Simon Clarke. Pic: Simon Hulme

But as he enthuses about his boss's 'levelling up agenda' which Ministers say will rejuvenate the economic prospects of the North of England with extra investment, he reflects on how the industrial decline in his native Teesside influenced his politics.

"I wouldn't have called it the levelling up agenda because that hadn't been coined but the truth is I was fed up with Teesside being talked down", says the MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. "I hated the sense of irretrievable and inevitable decline."

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"I wouldn't have maybe been able to put it into those words but in the end, all politicians of all parties go into politics wanting to make a difference. I think that making a difference for the North is undoubtedly one of the things which I feel most passionately about, that we have punched below our weight for too long."

Mr Clarke, appointed as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury in July in the early days of the Johnson government, is up in Yorkshire from Westminster for what he describes as a "good chance to put our area back on the map".

A meeting with West Yorkshire leaders shortly after his interview with The Yorkshire Post sees an agreement reached to enter formal negotiations on a devolution deal which would see a powerful metro mayor created for the county after years of wrangling.

Talks were reaching a decisive point last Autumn before being cut short by the election, but with a broad agreement now in place only a few issues remain to be hammered out the deal worth hundreds of millions of pounds to be signed in time for the March budget.

And Mr Clarke highlights Tees Valley metro mayor Ben Houchen, the beneficiary of extensive powers and funding devolved from government since his election in 2017, as an example of the prize on offer to the West Riding.

"If you have a strong mayoral leader then you in a really good place to have that champion and Ben is a really good example of someone who has made that role his own.

"When you want a voice of the North, he's a natural figure and one of the things we hope to create over the next few weeks is a comparable figure of authority for Leeds. I think that Leeds deserves it, I think there is a clear gap in the market here, whereby hopefully the stars are aligning for us to get that sorted."

The Treasury has been working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on the devolution agenda, which this week has seen Ministers meet with local leaders from across Yorkshire over the possible transfer of powers from Whitehall.

And Mr Clarke sees devolved metro mayors like those in Manchester, Liverpool and more recently South Yorkshire as "a vital tool to boost productivity", adding: "We all know that's what the North needs.

"This is one of the best tools we've got really to cut through, to drive growth, to set ambition, I think that's where the mayor can be so effective, as a champion for an area, not just within the country but to the world outside and there is no better tool that we've discovered.

"You wouldn't see Manchester now getting rid of Andy Burnham, it's unthinkable that you would take that step, so those areas which don't have it, Treasury wants to see that."

More evidence of his party's commitment to the North will come in the March 11 Budget followed by the Comprehensive Spending Review in the Autumn which will reveal the funding priorities for the entire Parliament.

Chancellor Sajid Javid has already promised an "infrastructure revolution", funded by low borrowing rates, with expectations likely to be high following the Prime Minister's high-profile courting of 'Red Wall' voters in what are now ex-Labour heartlands.

Mr Clarke admits his government will be judged on its success in this area and is "absolutely serious about changing the way in which the Conservative Party is seen" in places like Wakefield, Rother Valley and Redcar which turned blue in the General Election.

The Treasury Green Book, whose rules dictate where investment is prioritised by Whitehall mandarins, will be reviewed amid concerns that it favours areas whose economies are already on the up at the expense of less well-developed areas.

"The 2010s was all about getting back control of the public finances, the 2020s is an obvious turning point", he says. "We've had the election, it's the start of a new decade.

"There is now more headroom for investment. Levelling up, it does what it says on the tin, it's the Ronseal test that we need to create jobs, opportunity, reset ambition for the UK, so that we don't just think in terms of growth in London and the South East.

"London is a huge driver of economic prosperity for the whole of the UK, but equally we need to make sure that areas like West Yorkshire get a reset of ambition, not just in terms of physical infrastructure but in terms of human capital, skills, the way in which young people in places like Wakefield view themselves and what they can achieve."

A recent visit by Treasury officials to the Tees Valley saw talks over whether metro mayors and other local leaders could have more direct links to the department, potentially bypassing other bodies like the Department for Transport or Transport for the North.

And while Mr Clarke says the Treasury does not intend to cut out other departments, "the role of the mayor is to frankly be able to pick up the phone to government Ministers and make that case in a way which you know when it's truly urgent, can really make a difference".

He says: "My commitment to the people of West Yorkshire today is that if we get the mayoralty in place and the new mayor is on the phone talking about what really matters for this area, then I think that does expedite the process, it gives one strong commanding voice and that is what's required.

"You look at the impact the mayoralty in London has had, they are now a big national figure, the mayor of the Leeds City region can be the same."