Northern England: Opportunity and Productivity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:17 pm on 12th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour 1:17 pm, 12th January 2017

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on obtaining this debate and I declare an interest in my role as a Cumbria county councillor, about which the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, was far too generous.

For us in Cumbria, the northern powerhouse came as a beacon of hope. But today the flame has been reduced to a flicker. Why and what can be done about it? Cumbria is a county with enormous economic potential. The national parks stretch continuously from the Cumbria coast right into Yorkshire, and with Hadrian’s Wall and all its cultural history it is one of the great places to visit—and to live—in Europe and the world. If the northern powerhouse could reignite the 19th century dynamism of the great northern cities to its south, and if only the right local infrastructure were in place, Cumbria could become a compelling attraction for small business entrepreneurs, innovators, consultants and the rest.

As for Cumbria’s west coast, which the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, just spoke about, in the 19th century a few made their fortunes out of coal, iron, steel and shipbuilding there. In the 20th century, the workers and families they left behind lived through decades of acute depression and, since the Second World War, a longish industrial decline. Now, however, there is a real prospect of billions of new investment. GSK is putting £350 million into Ulverston, in south Cumbria. The Trident replacement programme in Barrow is taking on highly skilled workers. A £2 billion wind farm is planned off the Barrow coast, and a £20 billion new nuclear power station at Moorside next to Sellafield will generate 7% of Britain’s electricity, with a £2 billion investment by National Grid to carry it to the rest of Britain.

But for those developments to lead to a lasting rebalancing of Britain’s economy, there has to be a coherent economic plan, and they need supporting infrastructure. I shall explain to your Lordships how bad things are. The Cumbria LEP made a bid last July for 12 key projects, to be completed by 2020, to help support this new investment. The cost would have been £165 million, but the Government are offering us £12.6 million—less than a 10th of what we asked for.

In addition, we have argued for government commitment to a £130 million improvement to the Cumbrian coast railway, which connects all these projects and runs from Carlisle to Whitehaven, Barrow and Lancaster. At present, the journey from Carlisle to Lancaster is longer and much bumpier than the Virgin Trains ride from Carlisle to London. The new Northern Rail franchise will improve the rolling stock a bit, but only if we get Network Rail investment in track and signalling can this be transformative in what will be a hugely important area. The £3 billion of extra rail investment that George Osborne promised the north is, frankly, inadequate. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I am not arguing that the sums committed to HS2 should be cut; nor am I arguing that London’s Crossrail should be stopped. I feel very strongly that, if we are serious about rebalancing, we have to increase our overall commitment to transport investment.

At the same time, there has to be much more joined-up thinking in Whitehall. I support Greg Clark. I think he is a great Minister who is developing an industrial strategy, but that strategy has to put the nuclear innovation at its heart. Why spend all this money on new nuclear in Cumbria when all we will have is imports by foreign companies if we do not make ourselves a centre of nuclear excellence?

But more than that, we have to develop our universities and have much better schools and higher apprenticeships, and we have to support the vital public services. How can it make sense for the Government to support a plan to build a new nuclear power station in west Cumbria, which will require a workforce of 6,000, at the same time as we are proposing to cut services at the local hospital?

Finally, in Cumbria we need to get our act together, as the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, said. Our structure of two-tier government is hopeless and, at a time of continuing public austerity, disgracefully costly. However, there is no incentive for reform unless the Government put money on the table and bang heads together, showing a lead. Without that, I am afraid that the remaining flickers of the northern powerhouse will die out.