In Parliament last week I asked the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne what his Northern Powerhouse initiative had ever done for the North East.
Many people reading this will have heard of the Northern Powerhouse. However, most people probably haven’t. It doesn’t have any real tangible meaning and doesn’t seem to be directly affecting people’s lives here in the region.
It was started by the former Chancellor with a mission to foster greater economic prosperity in the North of England by improving transport links, investing in science and innovation and devolving powers from Whitehall to city regions.
Aside from my political disagreements with the former Chancellor and concerns about the vagueness of its precise powers and remit, the Northern Powerhouse is a concept I passionately support. To ensure that jobs and wealth are shared across the country, not just concentrated in London and the South East and in the financial services industries, is fundamentally a worthy goal and something that would not only bring long overdue improvements to the infrastructure and skills base in the North but also increase the overall resilience of the UK economy, benefitting the whole country.
However, as I have written before in this column I have real concerns that the Northern Powerhouse could become an M62 growth corridor, mainly focused on Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, with the North East being all but left behind. I know I am certainly not alone in this – I heard the Stockton MP and former Northern Powerhouse Minister James Wharton casually referred to as “The Minister for Manchester” on many occasions when he was in that post – which is why last week I brought Mr Osborne before the Parliamentary Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee to address these questions.
The focus of George Osborne’s answers were revealing. He mentioned the North East only in passing, instead concentrating on the potential for facilitating greater growth through a clustering of economic activity based around the geographically close cities of Leeds, Manchester, Hull, Liverpool, and Sheffield. The idea is that by improving skills and infrastructure and boosting links between these cities, the whole can become made greater than the sum of its parts.
I’m unconvinced that this sort of policy talk, focused on where it is, helps the North East. When I asked the direct question “What has the Northern Powerhouse done for the North East?” Mr Osborne struggled to come up with examples, though he did concede that there was a need for “some specific interventions for the North East”.
The problem may be that the current fuzziness of the Northern Powerhouse I have referred to - it has no designated budget and does not have a strategic plan or any kind of codified remit - means it struggles to pull off the kind of specific interventions our region would surely have benefited from, such as real action to save steelworkers’ jobs. There is a massive gap in transport spend between London and the South East, but the government seems unwilling to mend that gap, arguing that a pound of capital expenditure is best spent on alleviating congestion in the South East rather than stimulating economic development in the North East.
There are already questions as to the commitment of the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, to the concept of a Northern Powerhouse. I think abandoning it would be a huge mistake. I wish the Northern Powerhouse every success, but there must be a much greater degree of clarity about its precise role and powers-and it must place the North East at the heart of any economic development. At the moment, it clearly doesn’t, and our region is missing out as a result.