“I won’t join in the Punch and Judy show but I’ll admit to being punched on devolution and the Northern Way for two decades.” Speaking at the New Statesman’s 2019 Northern Powerhouse conference in Leeds this week, which coincided with the launch of the latest Spotlight edition on the Northern Powerhouse, John Prescott bemoaned the missed opportunities and empty rhetoric which, he claimed, has been characteristic of the government’s policy approach in the North of England.
Echoing a common refrain from critics of the Powerhouse strategy, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Labour Life Peer highlighted the disproportionate focus of the Powerhouse project on the larger cities of the North West. “The Northern Powerhouse? It’s not bloody Northern! It stops on the Pennines!… They’re not going to give devolution to Yorkshire because it’ll probably produce a Labour mayor. They don’t want another Labour mayor, they’ve already got enough of them at this conference!”
Following on from opening speeches from Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, and Jake Berry MP, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, who claimed that a reboot of the Northern Powerhouse strategy was underway, Prescott lamented the cancelation of his own devolutionary strategy, the Northern Way, after the Conservatives came to power in 2010.
“I’m a convinced decentraliser, I’ve always believed in devolution. We gave devolution to Scotland, we gave it to Wales, and I actually gave it to London, thinking we’d start the argument of the English regions being entitled to similar resources and power to get on with the job. I want devolution to the English regions as much as in Scotland and Wales. That’s why I introduced the Northern Way concept two decades ago. The Northern Way did give more resources and powers, did develop a transport plan. [George] Osborne abolished it! And today he’s accusing the government of having no vision about the Powerhouse!”
The previous day, George Osborne had publicly criticised the government for its lack of vision on the Northern Powerhouse and for failing to advance the initiative.
Having previously caused a stir after storming out of a Transport for the North event last year, describing it as “a bloody fraud”, Prescott used the opportunity at the conference to elaborate on the body’s inadequacies. He said: “The only thing Transport for the North can do is consult with Minister [Chris] Grayling. Bloody good luck with that! You’ll get a Punch and Judy show there but you’ll get no action… Not like the London one! They’ve got their own powers, their own resources, Crossrail, massive amounts of money. Not up here though! Here you’ve got to consult the Treasury.”
With the threat of climate change and the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, Prescott called for closer collaboration and a unified approach across the whole region to advance the interests of the North as a successful engine for green, sustainable growth. He added: “Let’s have one Northern voice with one Northern plan facing a new industrial revolution.”