Northern England: Opportunity and Productivity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:39 pm on 12th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Bragg Lord Bragg Labour 12:39 pm, 12th January 2017

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, on bringing this debate to the House. In my view, nothing is more important for the future economic well-being of this country than the wholesale energising of the proven and potential power in the north of England. As Brexit draws ever nearer, it is urgent that the IPPR’s well-thought-through and detailed report be taken seriously and urgently, by which I mean it should lead to action. As in all other regions, the north is vulnerable to Brexit. Luck will play a part in its future, and so will grit. However, policies, structures and history are the chief themes of this report, and the response to those by some in the north itself and by some down here in London—the Great Wen, as it used to be called, and the name seems ripe for revival—will define the future.

On the face of it, the north is a powerful beast—an economy of £300 billion, more than Scotland, Ireland and Wales lumped together. Were it to be an independent federated part of this country, which in my view would be very desirable, it would be the 10th largest economy in Europe. In 2015 the north grew faster than anywhere else in the UK, including London.

Against this, there is the history of the north, a walk on the dark side, which, save for one glorious world-defining era, does not promise well in its relations with the Great Wen of power in Whitehall. It has been a punishment block. William the Conqueror harrowed it and destroyed it as much as he could, while Henry VIII followed his example and had his usual go at blundering away at it. It became a vast, largely empty landscape of castles, cathedrals, monasteries and small settlements, with many sheep and few people.

The people of that area rose to the challenge, their genius providing the cradle for the greatest revolution in history, the Industrial Revolution, and the north came back. It is astonishing that we had 35% of the world trade at the end of the 19th century, yet by the middle of the 20th we had all but frittered it away. The coup de grace was delivered by the Conservative Government of the 1980s, and over a period of about a dozen years almost 3 million skilled jobs and some great world industries were laid to waste. As an act of national self-harm, it defies comparison.

There was no follow-up plan, nor, I am sorry to say, did the Labour Party provide one. The north was left to die—closed shipyards, empty factories, lost skills, empty towns, subsidence, subsidy and sorrow. But it has slowly, albeit patchily, built itself up again by its own initiatives. Now it is ready for a great leap forward, if only this Government would have the foresight and the nerve to give it the investment that it needs in education, business and communications, where the north has been left behind. We are faced by a Brexit that could badly threaten the north’s recent steady increase in prosperity and confidence. Threats and bullying words from Europe—including, surprisingly, from Germany, which I have admired over the last half-century—seem designed to stall any continued prosperity. However, over the centuries we have had a habit of responding well to threats from bullies, and now we have to get ourselves organised.

Infrastructure is the key, as many have said. It is shameful and ridiculous that there are no first-rate transport links between Liverpool across to Hull and from Hull up to Newcastle. Local infrastructure is far behind the European best. There is a skills shortage that could be remedied by the immediate expansion of technical departments in schools and colleges, instead of this faffing around with pointless new grammar schools and wasting energy on destroying the autonomy of universities. We have spent £40 million on a garden bridge in London without a brick being laid. That would have gone a long way in Hull and secured many of the scores of arts institutions that have been decimated in the north over the last year or so.

Why is there no vision for the wealth-making skills in the north when we are in clear danger? Vision led us to fast-build aeroplanes when the Second World War seemed imminent, for instance, and they were utterly vital. Who is defending the country now with anything like that foresight? We are throwing £50 billion to £60 billion at a railway line from London to Birmingham. Such a sum could bring riches to Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. What better way to shore up this country against the projected ruins of Brexit than to attempt with all our might to turn the north once more into a system of fortresses, this time of glitteringly contemporary business, high-tech manufacture and trade? Brexit is an opportunity for the north but confident commitment is what we need.

The north is well prepared for the impact of major change, but it needs to happen very quickly. How wonderful it would be if we could cut the deadly dither and exhilarate ourselves in a brave new world of decisions and action. A hundred years ago in the trenches, the British Army sang a song that went:

“We’re here because we’re here because we’re here”.

Great lyrics. Those men went on being there, and won through. So, you Brexiteers, “We’re here”, thanks to you—now get on with it. Have a vision. Take the opportunity in the north and stop moaning about how difficult it is. You got us here. Redeem your fibs. Turn your bluster into blast-off. The north, like Barkis, is willing. It can be the salvation of this country, but only if those inside the Great Wen would lift up their eyes to the northern hills, which is where they could find all the strength they need if only they had the guts to seize the moment.