Northern England: Opportunity and Productivity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:43 pm on 12th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 1:43 pm, 12th January 2017

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Massey on securing this most interesting debate, and on an introduction that has been a stimulus to all contributors. Two developments dominate the whole issue of the north at the present time. One is obviously Brexit, on which this Government are inspiring little confidence that they have a structure of priorities in place for the negotiations. Several noble Lords in the debate and the IPPR report itself emphasised that it is essential for a negotiating committee to be set up for the north to protect its interests and advance its cause in the negotiations with Europe. The UK as a whole has a considerable dependence on exports to the European Union, which is why these negotiations will be of such significance. The country as a whole exports 44% to the EU, but the north-east exports 58%. That is why it is so important that negotiations take place that safeguard the economic interests of the north.

Developments in relation to Brexit also reflect the fact that the north is a significant part of Europe. After all, its economy is as large as Belgium’s, as was indicated in the debate. It is larger than the majority of countries in the EU European Union. So we cannot disregard the significance of the region in these discussions. That is why the IPPR reached its conclusion, which I am sure this debate has gone a considerable way to broadcasting and endorsing.

The Government have also been riding high on the other development of great significance to the northern economy—the powerhouse of the north. Thus far, we would have to say that there has been great talk but very limited government commitment of resources. The concept had a somewhat weak start when the Chancellor seemed to concentrate on that part of the country of most direct interest to his own constituents. That is not of course to disregard the enormous significance of the city of Manchester, but it is also obligatory on any concept of the powerhouse of the north that other significant cities be included. The right reverend prelate the Bishop of Leeds emphasised that not just the cities need consideration but the smaller towns that are satellites to them and the surrounding countryside, which will also require real consideration if their interests are to be protected.

The fact that the Government’s commitment has concentrated overwhelmingly on transport shows the significance of the link between cities, but that plays only a limited part in the development of the wider northern economy, to say nothing of the fact that thus far very little has been heard of other significant cities. My noble friend Lord Prescott reminded us of the significance of Hull in this debate, but many cities in Yorkshire are important. Leeds has had some prominence in the Government’s considerations, but there is so much more to do. Concentration on transport has had a limited demand in this respect. The Government are promising £13 billion to be spent on these links in the next few years, whereas the IPPR indicated that effective links could be established only if £50 billion—four times that amount—were spent. That is an indication of the challenge that lies before us.

My noble friend Lady Massey and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, commented on the existing local authorities. The Government’s local government settlement still ensured that a great deal of resources went to the wealthier southern parts of the country, and the northern region got its usual poor deal out of that assessment. That is an indication of what needs to be done, not least on the issue of education. I was delighted when my noble friend Lord Bragg raised the issue of further education. He was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and others. There is no point in our talking about reskilling our nation while at the same time reducing the viability of the further education colleges. In my own former constituency, the Oldham College, which was a significant contributor, has had its resources truncated so much that it is now being linked with two other colleges for provision—a sure sign that this is about constraint on expenditure rather than expansion of provision.

However, unless we address ourselves to the skills of the nation, the resilience of the people that was referred to by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York cannot be catalysed into effective activity without the necessary education and training. I hope we will soon see the Government giving some priority to this. That is the only way we will see our economy thrive on the skills of our people, rather than be dependent on the introduction into the economy of plumbers and contract workers from eastern Europe to meet the needs of our employers. We need progress in this area.

Finally—and I am not asking the Minister to reply to this point because it is at a nascent stage—several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Liddle, have emphasised the problems in Cumbria. I know of several businessmen who are taking seriously the challenge of improving the position in Cumbria. They are looking, and have been for some time, at what we had such excellent news about yesterday: tidal schemes in Swansea and the fact that the Swansea lagoon can prove viable. We have estuaries off the northern and southern coasts of Cumbria, and it is to be expected and hoped that intelligent business activity will address itself to the possibilities of progress there.