Northern England: Opportunity and Productivity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:45 pm on 12th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 12:45 pm, 12th January 2017

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, not least because only a few hours ago I was listening to him on the radio asking searching questions about the philosophy of Nietzsche. I thought it was going to be a sharp change of gear but actually he brought some of the same broad perspective to his very enjoyable speech today.

I welcome this report and the suggestions it makes. I want to look at it alongside another valuable report—the North East Chamber of Commerce’s manifesto for the year ahead. I pick out one thing initially from the latter report: dismay at the failure to make progress on the devolution deal for the north-east of England. You might think that where every local authority in the region has Labour leadership they would manage to agree with each other and make progress, but no such thing has happened. They disagree with each other and the Government have not been helpful either. I would like to see the Labour Party get its act together and start to reach agreement on the devolution process and the Government to stop making as a precondition of progress on devolution the creation of an elected mayor, which is not a relevant concept for this kind of region. The two sides should now get together and start making some progress.

However, there is a lot more we need in the north-east of England. Sometimes when people from my part of the world hear debates about the north feel they that quite a lot of it is about the Midlands, rather than areas which are to the north of much of Scotland and feel that sense of remoteness as well. We have a superb higher education sector in the north-east of England but there is also a large skill shortage, which the IPPR report points out. We therefore need to strengthen both our further education sector and access to it, which is very difficult given the large distances involved in much of our region. In my home town of Berwick, for example, it is no longer possible—because the Labour council would not agree to it—to have support for young people going to further education colleges in Newcastle. The only feasible way to do that is to go by train. Lots of people are denied the access that would improve their skills and give them opportunities in the labour market. As the IPPR report identifies, partly as a consequence of this we are short on the knowledge-based industries and the rate of progress and expansion of knowledge-based industries is slower in the north-east than nationally and the skill shortage must be part of that.

Of course, there are infrastructure improvements we want to see. I spent a lot of my time in the Commons arguing for dualling of the A1 and I am still arguing for it because progress even on what was agreed under the coalition is still slow. When we hear talk of HS2 we are actually more interested in what happens to the east coast main line and increased capacity and improved reliability on it. There are many infrastructure decisions which, as other noble Lords have pointed out, would make a huge difference to our potential in the region.

Brexit features in both reports and both sound loud warning bells about the dangers in a region where 58% of exports are to European Union countries. There is a particular fear about a potential period in which we may have left the European Union—and the Prime Minister has not shown herself interested in staying in the single market or the customs union so it may be on this basis—and still do not have new trade deals with other countries to fill any of the potential losses when exporters to Europe will find themselves faced with tariff barriers and non-tariff barriers, which are sometimes more significant than the tariff barriers for being able to export into a country or a whole region such as Europe. We really need a different approach.