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29 September 2016

Brexit’s lesson for Westminster: ignore the north at your peril

Manchester mayoral candidate Andy Burnham calls on the government not to shelve its commitment to the Northern Powerhouse

By Andy Burnham

George Osborne’s fall from grace reached a new low last Friday. The former chancellor was forced to travel to Manchester to lobby a prime minister with whom, just a couple of months ago, he sat around the cabinet table.

His complaint was that Theresa May had failed to put an end to a summer of speculation about the future of his Northern Powerhouse initiative. In Osborne’s words, she had a “wobble” over the plans.

Osborne’s intervention in the debate was not unhelpful and he knows how wrong it would be for the Tory party to abandon their promises. Before the last election, you couldn’t escape Tory MPs touring the north and promising the earth. It looks like the Northern Powerhouse could go the same way as the “big society” – a clever vote-seeking soundbite and not much else.

As chancellor, Osborne may have inflicted the biggest revenue cuts on the north but at least he recognised the unbalanced nature of our country and devolved significant powers away from Westminster. He just wasn’t around long enough to back up all the fine talk and the devolved powers with real money.

In June’s EU referendum, we saw a stronger Leave vote in the north compared to the rest of the country. The result, particularly in former industrial areas, reflects not only concern about immigration but a much deeper sense of alienation from a Westminster politics that has failed to provide answers for their communities over many decades.

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When people voted Leave, they told us loud and clear that they want to see change in the way our politics works. Abandoning the Northern Powerhouse and promised investment would be entirely the wrong response to Brexit.

Entering Downing Street a few weeks after the vote, May pledged to close these divides in our society and fight the “burning injustices” that exist between different parts of the country and social classes. I welcomed the words but, if they are to have any real meaning, she must back them up with real money.

The London perspective on life dominates the political debate and does not do justice to the challenges that people here face. In post-Brexit Britain, the Northern Powerhouse should become much more, not less, important. May should fully embrace the project and make it a crucial part of the government’s response to the referendum result. If the government fails to show these areas that it has listened and understood the message they sent, then the political crisis in our country will only deepen.

With devolution to elected mayors, we have a chance to revitalise Labour in the north, too. I am determined that, as a party, we do not make the mistake of Scotland. If Labour fails to take this moment seriously then we will leave an opportunity for others.

For decades, government policies have been designed for the south and not the north – allowing the gap between the two to grow bigger. If I am elected the first mayor of Greater Manchester, I will use devolution to place new emphasis on technical education and council housing.

There has been a long-standing snobbery in England towards technical education, and our education system invites schools to devote more attention to university-bound kids than to those who want something else. If we want a more equal society, it starts with giving every young person hope that there is a decent opportunity waiting for them at the end of school. I will ask the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution to lead a revolution in technical education and set an ambition of a quality apprenticeship for every young person who gets the grades.

Westminster has for years tried to foist a housing policy designed for the affluent south on the rest of the country, promoting owner-occupation to the exclusion of investing in other forms housing. This has led to the sell-off of our council housing, an unregulated private rented sector and a failure to build the new homes that we need.

But under the devolution deal, a £300m housing fund has been created for Greater Manchester that can provide loans and guarantees to councils and housing associations to expand the public housing stock and buy out the absent and neglectful private landlords. A new rent-to-own scheme will build the homes we need to get our young people on the housing ladder.

There is an exciting opportunity for mayors to bring health policy and housing policy together, too, and place a new emphasis on building homes with care and support in mind. In the century of the ageing society, we need to follow the lead of Sweden and start building “dementia-friendly” homes. Devolution of the NHS budget means we can build the country’s first fully integrated National Health and Care Service, working to bring social care into the public sector and the NHS.

Far from powering on, the economy of the north of England risks grinding to a halt if promised transport links are not delivered. Failure to give the north a fair share of transport funding has saddled us with a clapped-out, overstretched and overpriced rail service.

Yet, during August, government sources briefed newspapers that Theresa May is planning to impose greater cost controls on the HS2 rail link and could curtail HS3. When overcrowded trains still take hours to trundle across the Pennines, I simply cannot see how anyone could possibly conclude that Crossrail 2 is the highest strategic transport priority for our country.

In her Autumn Statement, the Prime Minister must make the first down payment on the building of the Northern Powerhouse with a commitment to the most ambitious version of an HS3 scheme, linking Liverpool with Manchester and onwards to Leeds and the other cities of the north. She must understand there is no social mobility without modern public transport.

People remember a previous Tory prime minister standing on the steps of Downing Street quoting St Francis of Assisi – and seeing a wide gap open up between her words and her deeds. To prevent history repeating itself, I urge Theresa May to act quickly to make clear her personal commitment to investing in the north and rebalancing our country.