As published in The Independent on 16/01/19
With Brexit dominating the headlines, the pressing issue facing local leaders like myself is how to prepare our communities for the challenges that we may face over the coming months and years. But for too long politicians have failed to address the lack of investment in the north. With Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union, this is something that we can no longer stand for. I met with the chancellor last week to press him on the importance of renewed and fair investment in the north of England.
Much of our predicament is a consequence of the historic legacies of deindustrialisation and the concentration of economic and political power in London and the southeast. This continues to leave its lasting mark on many communities: long term unemployment, a lack of well-paid jobs, boarded up shops and empty town centres are an all too familiar sight in many of Britain’s towns and cities.
In such areas, stalling productivity, slow wage rises and declining living standards are symptoms of the much broader problem of decades of underinvestment in our country’s regions. Until now, this is something that we have simply sat back and accepted. But in many communities there is now a real, deep-running and understandable sense of frustration that London and the south-east take such a large share of public investment.
When it comes to spending on transport infrastructure, the gap between London and the north is particularly stark. The government’s own figures revealed that in 2017-18, for every £1 spent on transport in Yorkshire and the Humber, £3.20 was spent on London’s transport networks. This trend is projected to continue. Since the Northern Powerhouse was introduced by the government in 2014, transport spending per person has gone up twice as much in London as in the north.
These figures are underpinned by a structural unfairness in the criteria by which funding is allocated, one which tends to favour infrastructure development in the south rather than in the north. The current approach assesses all schemes on the same criteria, but stronger economic areas in London and the south-east inevitably yield more economic output for every pound invested. Assessing schemes on this basis continuously benefits the south-east of England, leaving areas in the north which would benefit significantly from investment effectively stranded.
Simply put, we need the government to recognise the growth potential of our great towns and cities across the north.
Investment in these areas has been proven a success time and time again. In Doncaster, for instance, £60m of public and private sector investment funded the development of Great Yorkshire Way, a motorway link road between the M18 and Doncaster Sheffield Airport. As a result, Doncaster has unlocked an overall investment of £1.8bn in the economy, created 1,200 jobs, delivered airport growth and the development of iPort – one of the UK’s largest logistics developments – while regenerating a former colliery community. The Great Yorkshire Way is testament to what places like Doncaster can do with the right resources.
But funding alone cannot address the problems we face. As well as a fairer system for allocating resources, the government must redistribute power, so that decision making is made closer to the communities that will be affected, and so that local regional leaders have the autonomy to invest in local priorities.
If the government is really serious about the Northern Powerhouse agenda, it needs to commit to the meaningful systemic and structural changes that will unlock the full potential of our regions. I know that if given the right powers and fair funding, regions across the country can face the future with certainty. It is now up to the government devolve those powers and that funding to show that all parts of our country matter.