IF Britain’s economy is performing so well, the triumphalist message which underpinned George Osborne’s vitriolic Autumn Statement, why is this not translating into popular support for the Conservatives?
This quandary is largely answered by the independent National Audit Office report today which exposes the scale of the coalition’s abiding failure to put in place an effective strategy to generate growth in the English provinces, including Yorkshire, after the regional development agencies were abolished prematurely.
A critique omitted from a partisan speech which was more political than economic, it reveals how a succession of initiatives – such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, Enterprise Zones, City Deals and so on – are not delivering the anticipated gains in jobs.
These findings must not be ignored. If the North-South divide is to be narrowed, the stated aim of the coalition, then the Treasury will accept these criticisms with some humility – a trait absent from a raucous Commons yesterday – and explore what can be done so that the whole country benefits from the recovery now gathering pace.
It does not need to signal a return to the RDA model. Bodies like Yorkshire Forward had become profligate and unaccountable. They also lacked a clear focus in their latter years as Britain entered one of the deepest recessions in history.
Yet, rather than scrapping these quangos, this hard-hitting report reaffirms the widely-held view that they should have been streamlined, certainly until new bodies were up and running, so there was no risk of investment opportunities being squandered.
That the Government’s naive approach led to a “significant dip in local growth funds and jobs created” explains why the recovery is still being greeted with so much scepticism in Yorkshire, and especially in those marginal seats which will determine the 2015 election.
The findings will also harden the views of those who maintain that the Tories do not understand the scale of the social and economic challenges facing the North, and that the recovery is being driven by London and the South East’s resurgence. As new infrastructure investment pours into the capital, Yorkshire is still fighting to hold its own, hence why Mr Osborne’s optimism is not shared with those voters who fear that future rises in energy prices will eclipse the Chancellor’s latest concessions.
Yet here is the paradox. While Ed Miliband seized the political initiative with his proposed energy price freeze, Labour is still bereft of economic credibility, even more so after a dismal response by Ed Balls that lacked clarity or coherence.
Yes the Government has had to borrow more money than expected, the Shadow Chancellor’s only line of attack, but the recession was far deeper than assessed at the time and it will take far longer than anticipated to balance Britain’s books.
That the Chancellor has a chance of doing this within five years is testament to the resilience of this coalition, even if it did err in neglecting the North’s needs for too long.
It has been prepared to take politically unpalatable decisions, whether it be scaling back the public sector, capping benefit claims, forcing the young unemployed to undergo skills training or raising the retirement agent for millions.
It is also showing far more fortitude and unity than many had anticipated and its business rate relief for small high street shops could not be more timely.
However this period of transition will still take time, a point that George Osborne did acknowledge. He is right. The job is not done. This is only the beginning of a period of sustained economic renewal, despite the upheaval of the past three years, and explains why the Chancellor must accept the NAO’s valid criticisms.
For, unless he does so, the North-South divide will become more pronounced and it will become even harder for the Conservatives to win the 2015 election and complete the policy reforms that are still essential if the country is to start living within its means once again.
One in a million
THE priceless value of iconic buildings, illustrated by The Deep’s transformative effect on Hull’s fortunes, is reiterated by the Hepworth Wakefield surpassing all expectations after welcoming its one millionth visitor yesterday.
A total vindication of the inspired decision to bring this art gallery to Wakefield, The Hepworth has contributed £15.7m for the local economy which is being transformed by the regeneration of the West Yorkshire city’s once neglected waterfront area.
The largest purpose-built art gallery to open in Britain since the Hayward on London’s South Bank in 1968, this success proves to London-based ministers that culture policy should never become the exclusive preserve of the capital – art must be accessible to all.
More locally, the Hepworth Wakefield’s popularity shows the value of the leisure and tourism industry – and how these under-valued sectors of the economy can play a key role in breathing new life into Yorkshire’s towns and cities.
After all, Hull would probably not be the 2017 City of Culture if it wasn’t for the bold decision to build The Deep and incorporate the brilliant Hull Truck Theatre into a major shopping development. Other city leaders would be wise to heed this lesson.