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Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 3rd June 2015.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 4:05 pm, 3rd June 2015

I normally enjoy the right hon. Gentleman’s interventions, but I must say, in a spirit of as much graciousness as I can summon, that he is entirely on the wrong track. Such matters as have been devolved have not really made a difference. Particularly when it comes to Newcastle and north-east, which I shall talk about, there have been words, but not substance. We want substance, and we want real powers.

For example, why are decisions about the regional growth fund taken in SW1, not in the north-east? Why should we depend on civil servants in London to put the north-east’s £500 million of European funding to work properly? Why can we not take control of that ourselves? Why is the Work programme run out of the Department for Work and Pensions, when local programmes like Newcastle Futures are much more successful in getting youngsters and the long-term unemployed into work? Why can we not have our own housing investment fund to deliver on the plans that have been set out by our combined authority? Why can the north-east not run its own buses, as London does? Why can we not have an integrated transport system? Why does the Minister for Security, who used to have a skills brief, think that London knows better than the north-east what kind of skills we need to build an economy that matches our values and aspirations?

Scotland is to be given more powers as part of the referendum settlement. It will compete with the north-east for every investment, every tourism trip, every pound of foreign investment and every new job. However, while Scotland will blow its own trumpet, we have to rely on Whitehall to blow ours. Less than 10% of inward investment inquiries from firms that are interested in locating in Newcastle come from UK Trade & Investment. That is just not good enough.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which will receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords on Monday, is supposed to devolve powers to large cities that choose to have mayors, as my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell said. Newcastle was one of the nine out of 10 cities that chose to reject an elected mayor. Is it the Government’s intention to free the north-east at the cost of a top-down reorganisation of local government? I believe that we need to improve the accountability and transparency of combined authorities like the North East Combined Authority, but I hope that Ministers will work with our local authorities to come up with something that we can agree on, rather than impose something.

In conclusion, the north-east has so much to contribute to the economy. It has consistently had a balance of payments surplus and, I should add, is the only region in the country to have one. We are home to many emerging innovative, green and digital industries; we have world-class universities; and we have a passion for making and building things. We have a passion to build the economy of the future. Yet our region was neglected by the previous Government and is being neglected by this Government. Now is the time for the north to take control of our destiny with the powers that we need to build our economy in a way that reflects our values. That must not come with strings attached or with more centrally imposed vicious cuts to local services. That is what we need and that is what I will fight for in this Parliament.