Northern England: Opportunity and Productivity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:07 pm on 12th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Monks Lord Monks Labour 12:07 pm, 12th January 2017

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Massey for initiating this opportunity to shine a spotlight on the north of England. It is always a pleasure to follow the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who talks knowledgeably about his particular archdiocese.

If the reality of the northern powerhouse never quite lived up to the hype generated by its jazzy title, as my noble friend Lady Massey suggested, it is none the less welcome that the Government have injected energy and resource into the future of the north. The policies were not always consistent, with cuts in local authority funding running against the grain of the northern powerhouse. There were some contradictory strategies at work. But as the IPPR reminds us, with George Osborne and the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, moving on, it is not yet clear that there is an effective champion in the Government for the northern powerhouse. I hope that we will hear something about that today. Indeed, the Prime Minister struck a rather different tone, referring to her interest in all cities and regions—an approach that risks losing the focus and momentum that the north needs. One message from this debate will be to ask the Government, “Where are the top-level champions at the heart of government?”.

There are welcome bright spots in the north. There are vibrant city centres. They are a little too dependent on shopping and drinking, in my opinion, but none the less huge improvements are taking place in some cities. There are well-performing areas such as Warrington, Cheshire and York and North Yorkshire, but in too many other places the dynamism that built the great industries of the north and the accompanying cities and towns has faded along with those industries.

So we have the situation of a rather lop-sided economy in the UK, with—according to the Eurostat figures—the UK having three regions in the EU top 20: London; north-east Scotland; and Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. Only the rest of the south of England does better than the EU 28 average. It is not just a northern problem, of course; it is a Welsh problem, it is to some extent a west of England problem and it is a problem for others as well. Regions outside the south-east are struggling to come up to scratch against some European standards.

Now some people who supported leave might claim that the north has been held back by EU membership and that, if we take back control, our natural enterprise and flair—and, no doubt, unleashed animal spirits—will transform matters. This is a fantasy. As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, the north is lagging behind the best on a number of issues, including: education and training standards, which is a point well developed in the IPPR report; higher levels than average of poverty; life expectancy rates below the national average and particularly below the average in the south of England. Productivity needs big improvement, the urban environment needs improvement and transport, too, needs improvement. Where in the great northern cities are the underground railways that so characterise many of our continental counterparts?

These in fact are all national competences. They are not EU competences at all. They are nothing much to do with the EU, although the EU regional funds have been useful contributors. It is important, too, to remember that a lot of the companies that are engines of growth in the north are foreign owned, often European owned, but also Far Eastern owned. They include BASF, Tata and Nissan—and, of course, recently Siemens in Hull, making a huge contribution in this important year for Hull.

I had hoped that our cities would reach this northern European standard. We have still got some way to go and it is important that we continue to make people in the north aware of just what other people are doing. Brexit will not help with that, but it is important that they learn. My father used to say, “What Manchester does today, London does tomorrow”. I am proud of what Manchester has achieved since the 1990s, but let us be honest about it. It is some time since we have been able to say that those remarks of his remain true. We are still some way off the best and have got a long way to go.