Jake Berry, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, speaking at the New Statesman conference today, said the Government’s reboot of George Osborne’s flagship policy is underway. His speech suggested some of the elements of what should be in what he called NorthernPowerhouse Plan 2.0. – although, as Lord Prescott later pointed out, there was the Northern Way initiative in the noughties so really this should be seen as 3.0. The conference suggested three key elements will be required.
First, Berry hinted it will be far less ‘city centric’ acknowledging that the northern power-towns and small cities agenda has finally arrived. He promised no east-west division in the next NorthernPowerhouse nor an urban-rural divide. That agenda has taken a long time to appear when you reflect on the commentary about ‘left behind’ places immediately after the Brexit referendum. It was even emphasised by Cllr Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds City Council and Chair of Core Cities, who pointed out the need for Bradford, a city of more than 500,000 people, to have far better transport links. She went onto say that growth in future must be seen to benefit ALL areas.
Second, there will be the need for the devolution revolution’ to complete the devolution jigsaw. Prescott was clear that in his view devolution currently stops at the Pennines and is a North West and/or Manchester dominated agenda. He made an impassioned plea for Yorkshire to figure far more in plans both regards transport for freight – from Liverpool to Hull in a new global era where China is the world’s main exporter – – and seizing the potential of the Humber energy estuary to contribute to the clean green growth agenda in light of the new industrial strategy.
Berry said if Yorkshire devolution is completed – by which of course he did not mean to endorse One Yorkshire but a Mayor for everywhere outside South Yorkshire – then 75% of the north’s population would have a Mayor. Prescott went further and said the north needs to have a strong voice – presumably something that would happen when/if the jigsaw is 100% complete and there are eight or so Mayors who could then speak with one voice. Blake called as an interim measure for a Select Committee for the North, which may be popular in Parliament.
Third, there was a passionate call for the next Northern Powerhouse Plan to have further and significant funding and support. Berry said that his Government is currently planning to spend more on transport infrastructure in the north than any previous one. NorthernPowerhouse Rail is totemic in his words and will be delivered. Blake and Prescott welcomed this but said there was a need for people in the north to take advantage of the growth that is underway. Inclusive growth means the education and skills need to be improved so local people get the new jobs. Health also needs improving. Message loud and clear – it’s not just about transport spending.
Blake pointed out that 70% of Leeds council decisions have to be confirmed by central Government, adding that this is ridiculous. Also the budget cuts – at more than £1billion for Leeds alone – have been eye-watering. If austerity is over and if the Northern Powerhouse is to become real then northern councils need to see real cash on the table and real discretion. As Prescott too much of what is currently happening is decentralisation or partnership working not real devolution.
In conclusion, passion to turn cynicism about the NorthernPowerhouse into stronger political and popular support was very much in evidence. But when will we see that new NorthernPowerhouse Plan, and the long overdue Devolution Framework, see the light of day? Brexit is seemingly suffocating all other policy development and Government announcements despite the fact that as the economy dips, due to current uncertainty and fear of a no deal, all engines of the economy need to be fired up and the appetite to deliver is very much there!