Between 1975 and 2015, England had 38 separate government initiatives for local growth, according to National Audit Office figures. Many have wound up operations, with the task of renewal and development far from complete. The 1980s Derelict Land Grant went the way of the Single Regeneration Budget of the 1990s, as did the Enterprise Grant Scheme of the 2000s. Of those that remain today, the Northern Powerhouse Strategy is only the latest addition to a long list of policy pipe dreams for bridging regional divides.
Following Boris Johnson’s election victory in the North of England – 26 seats were snatched from Labour’s “red wall” in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber last year – the government would have been remiss were it not to prioritise the country’s chronic North-South disparities. Voters in these new Tory constituencies live with the consequences of years of underinvestment in transport and infrastructure, slashes to funding, gaps in health and talent retention, and a concentration of power in London.
Can the Northern Powerhouse, already more than five years old, redress the balance? According to Spotlight’s poll of councillors in the North of England (pages 12-13), 86 per cent said there had been no tangible benefits in their areas since George Osborne’s flagship policy launched. Eighty-three per cent said the project had so far either had no effect, or been a failure.
If Johnson wants to hold on to the “blue wall” he would do well to listen to voices from the region. Beyond decent transport and greater economic opportunity, they are calling for two overarching things: more control over decision-making, and more funding to make changes as the North sees fit. Ninety-seven per cent of councillors Spotlight polled said funding from central government was inadequate, including 80 per cent of Conservatives. Eighty-seven per cent said cuts to their local authority budgets were a barrier to growth.
Since 2015, the creation of metro mayors and the UK’s first statutory sub-national transport body have clearly been steps in the right direction. But the tortuous process of approving HS2 is a reminder that major decisions and budgets affecting Northern prosperity are still ultimately in Westminster’s hands. As Michael Heseltine puts it in his interview on page four, “let’s not lose sight of the wider purpose” of initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse – “devolution across all of the UK’s cities”.