This government promised that, if elected, we would begin a new and bold era of devolution for England. We wasted no time honouring our commitment. Since May last year we have signed six devolution deals across the country, and this month the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill received Royal Assent. It means local areas can now look forward to real control over the decisions that affect their lives, under the leadership of powerful elected mayors.
This is the biggest change in the system of local government for generations, and heralds a renaissance of local power that is long overdue.
For decades, the diverse cities and regions of Britain have been controlled from London. Few now believe that is the right model. It led to an unbalanced economy, and left local leaders powerless to make decisions that would make a real difference.
Devolution will restore the local autonomy that made our cities, towns and counties strong and prosperous, and admired around the world as models of civic governance. While we want every area of the country to experience these benefits, there is a particular resonance for delivering this commitment in the north, because we are also determined to rebalance the economy by building a Northern Powerhouse.
The northern economy already hosts more than half a million businesses, and many of the world’s finest universities and research institutions. Fifteen million people call the north home, more than Tokyo, New York or London, and a new job is created every five minutes.
If it were an independent country, the north would be the ninth-largest economy in Europe, worth £290bn, and if the north grew at the same rate as is forecast Changing the landscape for the northern economy for the rest of the UK, we could see an extra £37bn added to the national economy by 2030.
These might seem like big abstract numbers but they represent a prize worth fighting for, and realising this potential will necessarily involve securing more private investment for the north, particularly from abroad.
Chinese investors have already put £650m into the Manchester Airport City Enterprise Zone, a world-class development that will strengthen links with Asia and be the first airport outside London to host direct flights to China.
Other countries are also recognising what the north can offer: £500m of American money is being invested in a waste energy plant in the Tees Valley, and French investors are pumping £180m into a recycling plant in Leeds.
Nissan continues to invest abundantly in its Sunderland facility, a factory that makes more cars than the whole of Italy.
All these foreign investors are attracted by the enterprise, innovation and culture of the Northern Powerhouse, and we want more to follow their example. That is why the whole machinery of government, including our diplomatic missions abroad, are busy banging the drum for the north.
Last autumn the Chancellor published the Northern Powerhouse Pitchbook – showcasing £24bn worth of investment opportunities – and took a large delegation of businesses to China to promote it.
Part of promoting the north is demonstrating that we understand what investors want. They require good infrastructure and transport links, such as HS2, and a skilled local workforce. We’re backing northern leaders to make this a reality.
Every devolution deal involves guaranteed, long-term funding for capital investment, and in the Autumn Statement we announced an investment fund of over £400m for Local Enterprise Partnerships in the north, with an additional £100m for the north-east.
I will continue to work tirelessly with colleagues from across the whole of local and central government to devolve more powers to local areas, back northern businesses and secure investment.
But real success for the Northern Powerhouse will amount to much more than the sum of government funding, or even foreign investment. It must be an ambition for all areas, from metropolitan cities to villages, and all businesses and industries, to help the north reach its potential.
There’s no magic formula for success. There never is. But devolution has arrived and is here to stay. It will require local business and civic leaders to take ownership of the Northern Powerhouse and maintain the momentum of growth.
Ultimately our commitment to the Northern Powerhouse and devolution reflects our determination to be a One Nation government, which strives to secure progress and prosperity for every part of the country.
One Nation does not mean spreading our national wealth more thinly, or undermining the strength of London, but enabling every area of the country to reach its potential, and contribute to Britain’s success.
It is as Benjamin Disraeli, that great proponent of One Nation politics, once said: “The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.”
James Wharton is the MP (Conservative) for Stockton South and Minister for the Northern Powerhouse.