Inequalities - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:10 pm on 30 November 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Prescott Lord Prescott Labour 3:10, 30 November 2017

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and the House for being a couple of minutes late. I left my speech on the table and had to run back for it. I hope it does not affect the speech. I congratulate the noble Lord on having this debate and his support for regionalism—something I have always believed in. I differed a little bit when he came to HS2. As the Secretary of State who had to rescue the privatised HS1 and take it back into public ownership, I think we should have had an industrial strategy there that might have decided that you start this big investment in the north and go south if you want, and we would not have to wait until 2030 to get the 20 minutes off the train journey.

But leaving that aside, I welcome the debate. It is important to give the right priorities to the whole country, not just the regions, but at the moment the central planning system tends to look to developing in the south and not the north. I will not repeat the many statements that have been made about the inequalities and the differences between the north and the south. They are many, they are true and they are affecting the development—where you could get the highest productivity and the highest level of investment, both for the north and the country as a whole—but I will not dwell on them.

It is quite remarkable when you look at the change that has taken place. I was in the House of Commons for 40 years and have been in this House for a few years and I have heard all the arguments about intervention and planning. These were words which embodied ideological differences. One party was for planning and intervention, the other party was for the free market, and we can see it from the “Neddies” right through to the Thatcherite idea of leaving it to the market. It has not worked, frankly.

What I welcome about the industrial strategy document is that it has recognised the common sense of ownership—not necessarily public or private but working together in co-operation with the massive kind of investment that we need to achieve the new type of low-carbon economy, which will require major skills and major investment. We have broken away from the political debate about whether you believe in planning or intervention and this is now the language of the Government. Previously, it has been, “There have been failures in investment and productivity”, as spelled out by the Chancellor last week, and indeed other bodies. Now the Government say, “Let us look at how we can act differently”. As the document points out, that is really about having some planning, having a strategy and looking at it as a whole. Governments are involved because some of these major investments, as with HS1, cannot be done unless the Government are guaranteeing it in one form or another; private capital may also be used in it.

We have the development of an industrial strategy which means that after arguing in Parliament about all these elements for 40 or 50 years, we are now looking at what we have to do to meet the requirements of a low-carbon economy—increasing productivity, investment and skills—which Parliament has embedded in the Climate Change Act in saying that it must be one part of the development of the economy. Thankfully, that was done by a Government I was part of. That is the future. To that extent, I welcome a mechanism.

I welcome the language in the industrial strategy. It is very much what I believe, so I would tend to welcome it. It probably goes a little bit further than I used to think before. I see the co-operation; that is an essential part of it. But the language is right. The vision is probably right but at the end of the day it depends on the delivery mechanism. All these different forms of planning that have been used by different Governments at different times have failed because they have not been able to deliver on their language, whether in prices, incomes, planning or whatever. Therefore, we need to have something that gets greater support and co-operation and, above all, works. That would be helped by a parliamentary timetable that normally would be five years; you do not really get started or you get started and then of course somebody abolishes it or another Government come in.

A classic example of that is in the regions. The so-called northern powerhouse is not northern. It divides on the Pennines. Okay, I know it is aimed in that direction but it is not that. Is it a powerhouse? It is limited to co-ordinated authorities. It shows a divided country in many ways. I think the Government want to go further but I do not believe that the way they are suggesting is the best way. If you are regional, that is strategic; you want it on a region. Let us call it the north, because that is what I am very much involved in. But if you divide the north, as at the moment, whether because you cannot get the co-ordinating authorities to agree or you cannot get the planning body, that is a disadvantage for delivery.

A good example was when it was suggested that Transport for the North, the body set up by the Government and to be given strategy powers by Parliament, would have the right to decide on the strategy for the north and how it was going to be implemented. We now know that that is not so. It can only make recommendations to the infrastructure commission—which I think the noble Lord opposite is a member of. That was the purpose. Now it can only make recommendations. It was thought that it would have the resources, as we did with the regional development agencies when we set them up. They had the resources and the powers to implement what was decided in the regions. That is not to be so. It is another good example.

The Government do not like regions—that is quite clear—so they call them “subnational”. They do not like to use the word “region”. They have to strategically think from one end of the north, whether it is Liverpool or right up into Newcastle and Hull. They do not like the concept of regions for very good reasons: it takes it out of the Chancellor’s hands, and he is very committed in all these plans that it has to go back to him and he will decide what resources are going to be delivered. If we have a body for the north that makes recommendations, the infrastructure bodies that are set up and the Chancellor, that is what has been happening for the past 10 years. What is going to be different?

There are differences and there are movements. That is why, while I disagree with some of the strategy, I want to make a suggestion to it that would help. The industrial strategy and the document that the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, produced see the need for having a structure for the policy. I think the Government give it six or seven columns. Fine, but what you have to do is based on sectors. How many times have we argued about whether the Government should be involved in sector planning? But it is in this document. I suggest to them that they ought to think of corridor growth.

I live on the Humber. The Humber is one of the greatest assets we have in the north. It is estuarial growth. Those that locate in those growth patterns are different from land-based ones. You can see that in the Mersey; you can see it in the Thames, where a great deal was worked out on the Thames development; but we also saw it in the Teesside development—to look at having a mayor. I brought in devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I also brought in for London an elected mayor so I have been involved in dealing with that level of governance. But that is not what is seen in the development at the moment. It is still limited to local authority accountability and boundaries. So I commend estuarial growth to the Minister.

The Humber has Siemens. It has the greatest energy and renewable plants developing. It has Drax Biomass, which is a very important part of it. Along the river it has a lot of industry. We have plenty of land. We have the fastest broadband technology in the country—mind you, it is not owned by BT; that is probably why it is the fastest. If you put all those things together, we have those essential bits of growth that the Government identify in their industrial strategy. I invite the Minister and the Government to look at all the reports we have done about the Humber. We developed the first low-carbon report four or five years ago for the Humber. We have done reports on carbon development and skills training. We have been operating on that. It is a matter of bringing them together. I am calling for a Humber strategy in line with what the Government are doing at the moment. If the Government are looking for a place for quick growth, they have it on the Humber. Let us get working on it and get it done.