Northern voters ‘bearing brunt of cuts’

*As the fight for local election votes in key Yorkshire battlegrounds intensifies, a leading political analyst has warned the Government’s cuts have hit the North much harder than the South.

When the country goes to the polls on May 5 it will be seen as the first judgement on the coalition after a turbulent 12 months that have seen the biggest public spending cuts in living memory.

In the North many feel that they have had to take an unfair share with senior figures at Leeds, Hull and Bradford councils claiming authorities in the South were given a far easier ride.

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Roger Marsh, Northern Leader, Government and Public Sector, at PwC, said there could be serious consequences for Yorkshire.

“The North is being disproportionately hit by spending cuts and job losses,” he said. “Rebalancing the economy is one of the coalition’s pledges.

“This is a long-term game, but a significant shift in policy and investment is needed to achieve this, especially against the background of sweeping spending cuts.

“The economic gap between regions is likely to widen, with serious social and economic consequences and this election is an opportunity for the people of Yorkshire to influence the North’s future performance as a key player in the UK’s economy.”

On the same day as the council elections there will also be the referendum on whether to change the voting system, and the campaign skirmishes over both could cost more than local pride.

The increasingly aggressive rhetoric between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats has raised fears of a split at the heart of Government.

Yorkshire will be a crucial battleground, with Sheffield City Council firmly in Labour’s sights.

A Liberal Democrat run authority in Nick Clegg’s home city, it would represent a hugely symbolic blow to the coalition - and Labour need just three seats to claim a majority.

Both the Tory and Lib Dem leadership have been desperately trying to ease fears of a rift but the strain is showing.

In Yorkshire, the only gains the Tories could realistically make will be at their coalition partner’s expense in Harrogate and Ryedale, while Labour’s main targets other than Sheffield include two more Liberal run councils York and Hull.

The Lib Dems have campaigned hard on their record in local government - claiming not to have closed a single public building - and have made inflammatory accusations that the cuts imposed by Labour-run authorities like Leeds and Manchester were politically motivated.

Paul Scriven, leader of Sheffield City Council, has said voters on the doorstep understand why the cuts have been made, and blame Labour for bringing the economy to its knees.

Party insiders fear, however, that they are fighting a losing battle, and regardless of their record locally, public anger over issues such as tuition fees and reforms to the health service will mean their support stays home.

One of the biggest issues for both coalition partners is the perception that their actions are widening the North-South divide.

The independent think tank the Smith Institute, in association with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Newcastle University, published the results of a sixth month study last month, claiming the North will suffer greater cuts and more job losses than the South as a result of the Government’s “blind regional policies”.

A week later a second inquiry, by the regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, claimed as many as 53,000 jobs could be lost in Yorkshire over the next five years as a direct result of the Government’s plans to reduce public sector spending.

Economists said the plans to transfer employment from the public to private sector will actually cut £7.3bn from Yorkshire’s output, and they warned that even if private sector job growth continues as forecast – a “very tall order” according to the analysts – the region will still lose 5,000 jobs.

Mr Marsh said more action was needed from Government on transport, housing and business investment. “However fast we deal with the deficit, as a nation we will still be left with a huge lump of debt.

“We need a few big things that are game changing to support sustained growth and jobs, beyond just giving Local Enterprise Partnerships the tools and resources to make a meaningful difference, such as prioritising housing and transport investments.

“Business needs more, not less, support, especially in declining industrial areas. It’s time to tackle an economic challenge that has been latent for at least 20 years which, to a large extent, has been masked by growth in the public sector across the region.

“Local elections can be considered an opinion poll about the state of the nation and the proposed solutions to deal with our national and regional economic and social challenges.

“This is a test of the coalition’s progress so far and Ed Miliband’s impact as Labour leader.”