Region must pull together

IT was Henry Kissenger, the great US Secretary of State, who highlighted the importance of communication in the early 1970s as America came to terms with the emergence of the then EEC. He pondered: “If I want to call Europe, who do I call?”

Forty years later and Kissenger’s quandary is equally pertinent to the future relationship between the Government and the North as political leaders across Yorkshire, the North West and the North East seek a fairer share of Whitehall funding.

It is a question that needs to be resolved, even more so at the beginning of a politically pivotal year that will culminate with the Scottish independence vote. If Ministers need to talk to Scotland’s leader, or vice versa, there is already clear point of contact at present – Alex Salmond. Ditto Peter Robinson and Carwyn Jones in Northern Ireland and Wales respectively. Kissenger’s lines of communication are clearly defined.

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The same with London where the political decision-making revolves around the capital’s colourful mayor Boris Johnson whose force of personality means that he invariably gets his own way when it comes to securing public money.

Contrast this with the North where the replacement of the regional development agencies with a fragmented network of local enterprise partnerships and so on has actually diluted the quality and effectiveness of regional leadership. It has become a mish-mash. Locally, Welcome to Yorkshire is the only body which can work effectively for the wider good of the whole county.

Despite promises by the leaders and chief executives of the large metropolitan councils to work together on various issues, enmity – and suspicion – still exists between the likes of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Hull and York, and that is before the historic War of the Roses rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire is factored into the equation.

Yet, as the widely respected IPPR North think-tank makes clear, many of the challenges facing the North transcend regional boundaries – particularly road and rail improvements – and a more streamlined leadership approach is required if future funding bids are to succeed. In short, a way needs to be found to put the needs of the North before local rivalries that have become trivial and tedious. After all, Yorkshire’s economy does still compare favourably in size to each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The question now is identifying a group of people who can advance this agenda when previous reform attempts, such as the creation of elected regional assemblies or city mayors, have ended in failure. For, unless this leadership vacuum is challenged, northern regions will be at even more of a financial disadvantage – a scenario that will benefit no one.

The unfair fares

THE slow return to work today following the Christmas and New Year celebrations has a familiar sting in its tail – another raft of rail fare increases that has led one campaign group to claim that UK commuters now spend even more on travel in comparison to their counterparts across Europe.

This assertion was predictably ignored by the Government and the Opposition. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that increases to regulated fares will be pegged to the inflation rate from next year while Labour offered little insight of its own.

Yet, while the Government’s £38bn investment programme would not be possible without passengers, rather than taxpayers, making a greater contribution, it does not excuse those well-subsidised rail firms that regard customer service as an after-thought.

If firms like Northern keep passengers better informed about delays and cancellations, the travelling public may – just – be more understanding about the chronic overcrowding on so many rush-hour trains. And this is the problem – rail operators and the Government know commuters will pay more for an inferior service because they have no alternative.

This complacency could change if the notion of elected transport commissioners was given serious consideration. If the principle can work for the police, why not other key public services where proper public accountability is still so lacking?

A painful mistake

IT is already ominous, on day two of the New Year, that the cash-strapped NHS is already millions of pounds out of pocket because of the bungled launch of the 111 non-emergency helpline.

This is another expensive mistake at a time when hospital A&E units are already under such great strain because out-of-hours provision is inadequate in so many parts of Yorkshire.

It is why Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has two urgent priorities when he returns to his desk. First, he needs to ensure that any future changes are fit for purpose before they are introduced. They need to engender confidence from the outset. Second, Mr Hunt must persuade GPs to play a far greater role in out-of-hours care.

A failure to do so will make it even harder for the Health Secretary and David Cameron to convince voters that the NHS is safe in Tory hands.