Why devolution is key to rebalancing the economy

The former minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth on the opportunities presented by regional investment.

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It has been nearly six years since the government called for the North of England to be the powerhouse of the UK’s economy. Since then, we have rolled up our sleeves and put in the hard graft with business and politicians of all political colours to build a more prosperous North.

And it has delivered results. We have doubled foreign direct investment; a record number of people are in work, and the region now boasts 200,000 more businesses than in 2010.

On transport, we promised a record-breaking £13bn – more than any government in history – to transform the transport network and make it fit for the 21st century. We are finally consigning the tired, old Pacer trains to the scrapyard while bringing in cleaner, greener trains such as the brand-new County Durham-built Azumas on the East Coast Mainline. 

We committed to empowering local people by giving them the money, powers and tools to have a real say in the services that matter most to them – a Northern Powerhouse for and by the people of the North.

When the Northern Powerhouse was first launched, there were no metro mayors in the North of England. Today, almost 50 per cent of the North is represented by powerful metro mayors with a war chest of powers to drive economic growth.

These devolution deals are already paying dividends with gainshare investment helping mayors deliver the programmes local people want to see – from congestion-busting dual carriageways on the A6 in Greater Manchester to the expansion of Teesside International Airport in Tees Valley.

In Liverpool City Region, investment from the devolution deal has supported a new train maintenance and technology training academy with the largest rolling stock modernisation facility in the UK creating hundreds of high-quality jobs.

Through our Transforming Cities Fund we are also transferring £1.08bn to metro mayors over five years. These investments are supporting a host of pioneering projects including low-carbon ferries in Liverpool, the wholesale regeneration of Darlington and Middlesbrough train stations and the “Bee Network” in Manchester – the largest cycling and walking network in the country.

 Great progress has been made, but I believe, with a new parliament and reinvigorated government that works for the people, the best days for the North of England lie ahead of us.

As we seize all the opportunities that come with leaving the EU, it is the Northern Powerhouse – worth a staggering 20 per cent of the UK’s total economic output – which has a pivotal role to play in unleashing Britain’s full potential.

We have a once in a generation chance to empower local people on a scale not seen before. Our new Devolution White Paper – set for publication this year – will clear the way for more communities across the North of England to come forward and agree their own devolution deals with the transfer of money, investment and powers directly from Downing Street to their street.

That means more mayors and more accountability in our political system. But it’s also about increasing the powers of the current mayors – putting local people in the driving seat by giving them greater control over skills, transport and the services that have a massive impact on people’s lives.

And we will be going further to give devolved mayors the money they need to upgrade local transport with a new £4.2bn fund to deliver cleaner, greener buses, trains, cycleways and wider roads.

We also have the opportunity to redesign how regional funds are invested. Our manifesto committed to creating the UK Shared Prosperity Fund; a programme of investment to bind together our union of four nations through tackling inequality and low pay.

With this new fund, we will cut bureaucracy and create a simpler investment programme allowing us to rapidly bring forward regeneration projects in the North of England.

In the years ahead, we will build the next generation of transport and digital infrastructure. That means better-connecting our great northern cities with Northern Powerhouse Rail whisking passengers from Leeds to Manchester and beyond. But it also means levelling up towns, villages and rural communities as part of a “whole North” approach to spurring growth.

That is why we’re reversing the Beeching era rail cuts, reopening Northumberland’s Ashington-Blyth-Tyne railway line and restoring the Fleetwood route in Lancashire.

It is also why we are pressing ahead with the rapid rollout of gigabit-capable broadband and expanding our 5G testbeds so that small businesses and rural communities are no longer held back by patchy coverage and dismal download speeds.

In our great northern towns, our levelling up agenda is supporting 45 communities with up to £25m of investment; and I am looking forward to seeing the pioneering, grass-roots projects this investment from our Towns Fund turns from vision into reality over the coming months.

This is the North’s moment with a new people’s government behind it, backed by one of the strongest coalitions of northern MPs this parliament has ever seen. Together we will unleash our region’s full potential and finish building a Northern Powerhouse for the North and by the North.

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