Northern Powerhouse scheme: Does England really need a second London?

Despite the Tories' plans to create one. Marina Lewycka explains why she's sceptical

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The Independent Online

The little train clickety-clacks from Manchester to Sheffield at a leisurely pace, stopping at Chinley - nestled beneath the mighty outcrop of Ringing Roger - and at Edale, from where you can follow the path of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout. It crosses the Derwent near Hope, pauses at Grindleford, with its quirky greasy-spoon café beloved of rock climbers, and at Hathersage, whose outdoor swimming pool lures Sheffielders in summer.

The train toots as it enters the Totley Tunnel (a 5.7km-long masterpiece of Victorian engineering, built in 1893) and arrives in Sheffield 80 restful minutes later. This journey, through the green heart of the Peak District, must surely be one of the prettiest rail journeys in England.

But that 80 minutes is a problem. It’s bad for business. It’s holding Sheffield back from the advantages of the Northern Powerhouse. Even the fast trains take over 50 minutes and there are only a couple each hour. If only we could shave another 15 minutes off that journey, business meetings could start earlier, freight could travel faster, new jobs would spring up, prosperity would flourish. And Sheffield could sure do with a bit of prosperity.

But wait – who is this hero flying to our rescue, red briefcase bulging like a pair of Superman pants packed full of goodies for the North of England? It’s Super-Osbo preparing to rescue us from... hold on – isn’t he rescuing us from decades of neglect and depredation mostly by Conservative governments? It was Margaret Thatcher who first saw local government – especially the GLC, and Labour-voting cities in the north – as a direct ideological challenge to Conservative rule in Westminster. She started to strip councils of spending power through rate-capping and budget penalties. Regional Development Agencies were scrapped.

In 1985 local authorities were forced to sell off council housing and were stopped from using the money raised through sales to build more housing. In 1986 the GLC was abolished. The 1989 Education Act took away Local Education Authorities’ responsibilities for polytechnics, art schools and institutes of higher education. Now academies and free schools are nibbling away at the remaining local authority education provision; councils have been stripped of planning controls, with the Government having wide powers to overrule local decisions – including controversial schemes such as fracking for shale gas, which, according to the Conservative Home website, will be expected to fund much of the new infrastructure in the North.

Margaret Thatcher stripped councils of spending power through ratecapping and budget penalties (PA)

Shush. Stop carping. Forget all that stuff in the past. Forget the systematic plunder through austerity cuts from the poorest local authorities. Liverpool has lost £329 per head in government funding between 2010-14 and Sheffield has lost £198, as compared with a £27 per head loss in Wokingham or just £15 in Epsom and Ewell. Forget benefit sanctions and food banks. Forget zero hours contracts and the bedroom tax. Sniff sniff. Can anyone smell money in the air? Yes, it smells like a general election on the way.

But will George Osborne’s widely leaked plan for a Northern Powerhouse, centred on Manchester and embracing Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle, really shift power back to the regions and create 100,000 new jobs? It seems that the new money in his briefcase – we will find out today just how much – will fund new infrastructure, an improved transport network and turn these geographically apart and culturally distinct cities into a single 'powerhouse' to rival the prosperity of London. But this so-called devo-Manc comes with strings attached: it will not be local authorities spending this new money – it will be a single elected Boris Johnson-style mayor. The powerhouse that is London, it seems, must provide the blueprint for the Powerhouse of the North. And here’s the rub.

After last year’s Budget speech, Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central, responded to similar promises from the Chancellor with a call for some major government departments to be relocated out of London, and pointed out that it is not just the poorest regions but the poorest people in every region, who have borne the brunt of the austerity programme. "The benefits of the current faltering economic growth are not only shared unequally between the richest and poorest, but between London and the rest of the UK."

Arts funding is also biased towards London, not just through direct grants to sustain major national museums and galleries, but even Arts Lottery Funding. A report to DCMS called Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital shows £165 per head is spent in London as compared with £46.77 everywhere else. Given the money, we could make Northern cities just as vibrant.

Yet eager as we are to get our hands on some new money to power growth and jobs, many people in the North have reservations about the economic miracle of London. For all its glitz and glamour, for all the fine eateries, foreign-owned skyscrapers, publicly funded theatres, galleries and museums, there is also ugly inequality. Many of its residents live in poverty, hundreds sleep rough or squashed into poky flats with no outdoors, or face a twice-daily hour-long commute, not through glorious countryside but through dismal tunnels on overcrowded trains.

London is wonderful, but people can only afford to live in London if they have already lived there since before the property boom and own their own homes. Younger people, especially young families, can no longer afford child-friendly housing. Local authorities have been stripped of their powers to make developers provide an element of social housing for everybody else. Boris Johnson’s London has become a wealthy city for a global elite. For a while, the young can scrape by on a mattress on the floor of a friend’s shoe box, cycling everywhere, living on pasta and breathing in the buzz.

But you can only do that for so long. After a certain age, a gentle commute on a clickety-clackety train to a two-storey house with a little garden can seem like quite a dream.

Marina Lewycka’s most recent novel is ‘Various Pets Alive & Dead’, published by Penguin