There we have it. Seven months to the day after the EU referendum Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her plan for a post-Brexit Britain. A plan which means that, for the first time in a long time, Britain will have an industrial strategy of some description – which I welcome.
Setting aside the question about whether such a plan should have been formulated prior to June 23rd so that we were prepared in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote, let’s look at the proposals, particularly what they mean for the North, in more detail.
As part of the plans the government has pledged £556 million to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, an initiative that myself and counterparts in other northern local authorities believed to have gone with the sacking of George Osborne last summer. These were fears which were compounded when the new government also withdrew support for EXPO 2025, planned for Ashton Moss, late last year. It was therefore a relief to see the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ reappear in the government’s industrial strategy press release.
However this was only a small comfort. Whilst £556 million sounds like a lot of money, what will it actually buy for the combined regions of the North West, North East and Yorkshire? To put it in to context the total budget of Manchester City Council in 2014/15 was £563 million. The money pledged is therefore less that the amount that just one small part of the North, which in total has a combined population of almost 15 million, had to spend on its half a million residents. £556 million also pales in comparison to the £1.2 billion pledged for the London Underground’s Northern Line extension!
On the government’s project list to be funded by this cash are: an intermodal transport terminal on the East Yorkshire coast, a ‘21st century’ conference centre and hotel at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, £10 million for the Manchester and Cheshire life sciences fund and some flood defences in Yorkshire. I’m not suggesting for a moment that these aren’t worthy projects, but where is the ambition? Where is High Speed 3, the East-West high speed rail link? Where are the plans to build the homes we need for the 2 million on housing waiting lists nationally? Where is the money for the circular Metrolink line that would connect Greater Manchester’s satellite towns without the need to travel across the city centre?
I know I’m not the only one who is disappointed with the underwhelming announcements from the Prime Minister and Business Secretary yesterday. Indeed, senior figures in the Leeds City Region criticised the announcements for handing almost double the amount of cash that Leeds is getting to Greater Manchester. So if I’m annoyed about the lack of ambition and meagre amounts of money pledged when other areas think we’ve done alright, colleagues from elsewhere in the north must be positively furious!
I began this blog by welcoming the industrial strategy, and I do. Despite its shortcomings it is, after all, more than anything else we’ve had for a long time. Though my message to the government is – don’t do things by halves. This is a good start, but if this is it the ‘Industrial Strategy’ and ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will be things that will exist in name only.