My Lords, along with 1 million private sector businesses, some 15 million people call the north of England their home. Compare those 15 million with the populations of sovereign countries: 11 million in Belgium, 5 million in Denmark or the 6 million combined population of the three Baltic countries. However, as we have heard, despite its significant population, and in the absence of devolution, the north does not punch its weight and many, especially those living in deindustrialised rustbelt towns, feel both disaffected and alienated.
Since 1855, when Elizabeth Gaskell published her famous social novel, North and South, the phrase has pointed to disparity, but in our own time austerity cuts have accentuated poverty, exclusion, educational failure, crime and lower life expectancy. It is a fact that a baby girl born in Manchester can expect to live for 15 fewer years in good health than a baby girl born in the London borough of Richmond. Consider that Londoners currently benefit at the rate of more than £65 per head from investment in cultural infrastructure, compared with less than £5 per head for the populations based outside the capital. Or take employment. UK employment rates are at an historic high: almost 2.4 million jobs were created between 2006 and 2015, but during the same period, across the north of England just 360,000 jobs were created. For too many workers in the north, wages have failed to increase in line with the national average.
Remedies might include the creation of a northern wealth fund, using new money saved or generated in the north for the north; a pan-northern digital platform; more innovative regeneration; and housing policies determined in the north, where Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield will face a shortage of 86,000 homes by 2030.
For me, two leading priorities are transport infrastructure, which has been referred to, and education. I should like to hear from the Government what progress is being made not only on the direct high-speed east to west line but on reopening and renewing local lines and dealing with gridlocked roads feeding our northern motorways. Last Sunday, it was reported that two more of the most senior managers of HS2—which is now said to cost some £56 billion—have quit their jobs. Andrew Tyrie MP, chairman of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, questioning its credibility, saying that it risks being “scarcely worth the candle”. It is an argument I set out in this House in October 2015. Compare that £56 billion, which the noble Lord, Lord Beith, mentioned, with infrastructure investment in the north.
Turning to education, my other priority, I am the first from either side of my family to have had the opportunity of higher education, in Liverpool, and I draw the House’s attention to my registered interests. Sadly, significant numbers of bright young people in cities such as Liverpool still do not get the same opportunity that I, and others who were beneficiaries of the post-war education legislation, had. We urgently need to improve life outcomes for children and young people in the north. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said that the northern powerhouse will “splutter and die” if more is not done to improve performance in the region’s schools. He points out that four in 10 secondary schools in Liverpool are rated as inadequate, and that the number of teenagers gaining good grades is falling. He also said that “politicians need to act” and that,
“We cannot fight for social mobility with political immobility”.
A northern teaching premium to help schools struggling to recruit the highest-calibre teachers, and perhaps a “teach later” programme, might help.
The region’s 23 universities, six of which rank in the top 20 for research excellence nationally, should be empowered to become the drivers for transforming our region’s schools. The wonderful university of Liverpool John Moores, with its 21,000 students and 2,500 staff, has generated an estimated 2,493 jobs in industries across the north-west of England. By spending £186 million per year, it significantly contributes to the region’s economic and civic life. Manchester University has its own venture capital fund and has attracted £300 million of private funding to university spin-outs—crucial in creating jobs and leading-edge technology. The excellent annual Educate North & UK Leadership Awards and their conference celebrate these achievements. The whole sector is desperate not to see that success compromised by Brexit or by the Government’s higher education legislation. The Government must listen carefully to concerns that a dead hand is being placed on those crucial institutions.
I welcome today’s debate and am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for giving us parliamentary time to discuss these important questions.