The Northern Powerhouse had the perfect backer. George Osborne was Chancellor, the second most powerful person in the government. It was his project and he could make reluctant civil servants (they always are when it comes to devolution) do his bidding. Finally he represented a northern constituency.
The new Prime Minister has set up an economy and industrial strategy committee. It held its first meeting this week and the term Northern Powerhouse (NP) wasn’t mentioned apparently. This may be because Theresa May’s antipathy to Osborne is so great that she is indulging in a strategy that has been so debilitating for northern devolution down the years. I refer to the chop change with every passing minister, leave alone government. There is never the long term commitment to one plan to allow business to invest with any degree of certainty. There was a perfectly satisfactory structure of Regional Development Agencies in place but the Tories, with shameful silence form the Lib Dems, tore it all down.
All may not be lost however. It appears Mrs May wants to help all towns and cities in the North. There is a valid criticism that the NP was very city focused. The voting pattern in the EU referendum showed cities like Manchester and Liverpool backing Remain whereas suburban and rural communities voted Leave. They wrongly felt the EU was doing nothing for them but they may have concluded that about the NP as well.
Perhaps the economy and industrial strategy committee will recognise that the Northern Powerhouse needs to address the needs of all the people in the North East, Yorkshire and the North West and restore the organisations designed to achieve some urgent tasks.
They include improving people’s chances of owning a home (this week’s figures were shocking for the North),northern productivity, getting on with transport projects like HS3 east west rail connections and most of all raising our skills. A massive biomedical research centre, the Francis Crick Institute is opening this month…..in St Pancras London. We need the skills base to make it possible for such investments to be made north of the Trent. We have a huge advantage over London in terms of house prices, the quality of life and commuting costs. If only the NP could deliver the skill base.
The NP needs champions at the highest level. Andrew Percy doesn’t do it for me. He is the MP for Brigg and Goole so is (just) one of us but the new Northern Powerhouse Minister is even more unknown than his predecessor James Wharton. We must hope that Lord O’Neill of Gatley stays in the government working on the NP. He was angered about the Hinckley nuclear power station “pause”. Although nothing to do with the north, it seems George Osborne’s “golden age” of cooperation with the Chinese is over. The idea had been for substantial Chinese investment to help finance not just the Hinckley project but the NP too. If that commitment is lessened, Mr Percy will need to deal with the already existing criticism that the NP is all talk and no financial heft.