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I always thought George Osborne was sincere in his commitment to the north. I was wrong

The former Chancellor is now editor of the Evening Standard and an adviser for BlackRock. Where does the Northern Powerhouse fit in his schedule?

You know, as uncomfortable as it’s been, I’ve sometimes found myself defending George Osborne. Okay, he was an unmitigated disaster as Chancellor, plunging Britain back into recession through austerity, balancing the books on the backs of the poor, and generally making everybody miserable.

But at least he’d noticed the north-south divide – a chasm down the middle of Britain which means that, economically speaking, it looks increasingly like a central European country with a booming Singapore in one corner. At least, unlike most of his party, he seemed to think this was a problem it might be worth actually doing something about.

There’s always been a lot of cynicism from the left, about both Osborne’s commitment to the north and his plans for devolution. Okay, he’s a Cheshire MP, the man behind the new metro mayors, and the guy who wouldn’t stop banging on about the Northern Powerhouse. But the latter, surely, was just empty words, an attempt to look like he cared without ever actually having to fix anything. As for devolution, what was he devolving? Cuts, that’s all: an exciting opportunity for local councils to take the blame for his shitty austerity budgets.

I always pushed back against this – not because I thought Osborne secretly harboured a heart of gold, but because I thought his naked partisanship had momentarily lined up with the right thing to do. The only place Labour was still reliably competitive was in the big provincial cities. If Osborne could revive Tory fortunes there – by building the odd transport link, attracting private investment, boosting the local economy – then it was hard to see how the Labour party would ever come back.

I didn’t much like the idea of eternal Tory hegemony. But I did like the idea of a richer north, with trams all over the place and where people could commute across the Pennines on a high-speed train. I liked the idea of decisions about Manchester being taken in Manchester, not by civil servants in Whitehall who may never have been to the place.

And so, in the absence of a better plan, I was cautiously behind the Northern Powerhouse. At least it was a plan. I even, in one of my sillier moments, argued that Osborne should show he was serious by making a quixotic run at the Manchester mayoralty. He’d have lost, obviously; but he’d had made it look like a big, important job, and he’d have proved himself to be serious about the north. Osborne’s support for the Northern Powerhouse may have come about for all the wrong reasons – but I never doubted his support.

Well – how stupid do I feel right now.

Because Osborne never did take my advice to get into the weeds of the Manchester mayoral race. Since being unceremoniously sacked from government last July, he’s taken on a number of new jobs. He’s launched a new think tank, called the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, of which he remains the chair.

But it’s hard to see when he’ll be doing any chairing, because he’s also still an MP, and he’s being paid £650,000 a year to do a day a week for the US fund manager BlackRock. And today, it turns out, he’s taken on a fourth job, editing London’s Evening Standard newspaper. “Our only interest,” he said in the paper’s story announcing the appointment, “will be to give a voice to all Londoners.”

If there’s anything that communicates one’s commitment to the north even better than taking on three other jobs based in London when you’re supposed to be a northern MP, it’s that.

I always thought Osborne was a terrible chancellor. I always knew he was a cynic. But I thought his cynicism had led him stumbling, by some miracle, into a Damascene conversion in which he’d realised that the only way to fix this country, its economy and his party’s long term prospects, was to bridge the chasm down the middle of this island.

Turns out I’m an idiot.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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