There’s more to the Tories caring about the North of England than meets the eye

This is as much about the region resourcing itself than about enjoying central government largesse

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The Independent Online

As you read this, I will be either on my way or will have arrived in Cheshire visiting relatives.

It’s the sort of English county where not much happens, where not many people live, yet it remains fiercely proud of its own identity. But this seems like a pivotal moment to be there – on the cusp of a year that will see one of its high-profile MPs play an even more prominent role, and may bring devolution for the region of which it’s a part, a step nearer.

The two are related. George Osborne is the MP for Tatton, the constituency that includes Knutsford. I’ve been going there for years and George has been pretty much invisible – indeed, that has been a common local complaint about him. To be fair, that is not entirely his fault – he is Chancellor of the Exchequer after all and even if he wanted to be in Cheshire he would be dragged away on official business.

Recently, though, there’s been a change. Osborne is popping up repeatedly in the North-West, unveiling plans for a new high-speed rail link, encouraging talk of a single, elected mayor across the major cities, opening Manchester City’s new training academy and youth development centre. Said Osborne at the latter: “The partnership between Abu Dhabi United Group and Manchester council is a benchmark for public private partnership, driving investment into the North of England and developing projects where business and the community benefit.”

Note the use of “North of England”. Osborne has become an unlikely and recent champion for the North. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking there was a general election looming, and lots of Northern marginal seats up for grabs.

The love-bombing has taken Northerners by surprise. Devolution was never really on the agenda until Scotland almost gained independence in September. It was often discussed, but was not top of any credible wish-list.

 

That was because there was no popular unified groundswell for it. Of course, the locals muttered about the South and Westminster, and liked to speak in terms of them and us. But there was never any concerted demand for breakaway government, and if there was, it was uttered tongue-in-cheek.

That’s not to say the subject did not have merit. Certainly, there was common cause on a number of issues across the North – deprivation, lack of investment, need to provide post-industrial alternative employment, poor housing, and weak transport infrastructure.

But the other obstacle holding people back was the practical difficulty of achieving it. The cities do not get on – no matter how much they and the government pretend that they do. The rivalry between them is intense, and extends far beyond the football terrace – although that is indicative of the depth of feeling.

The notion, for instance, that Liverpool could be governed by Manchester or Leeds by Manchester, historically, has been anathema. They each have their own characteristics, customs, traditions and traits. However, they will suspend hostilities in order to secure cross-regional road and rail improvements.

The suspicion has to be that Osborne and his colleagues have panicked, that the closeness of the Scottish referendum provoked a re-appraisal of pre-election planning. This saw a flurry of good news for the North of England and the active promotion of devolution.

The Conservatives do not want to get to next May and the general election, and be accused of having done what a former Tory leader did, in the form of Mrs Thatcher, and ignored the North.

It’s a curious way for a government to behave, to make monumental moves of profound constitutional significance, seemingly on the hoof. But then, knee-jerk responses on weighty matters are characteristic of this administration.

A third factor has also come into play. Osborne is anxious to rebalance the economy, to move away from a reliance on services and the South. All the signs are, however, that as recovery has dawned, that gap between North and South has widened, that financial services are moving ahead rapidly, while the North, with its reliance on manufacturing, has been struggling.

With HS2, the new high-speed rail service between London and the North-West, having been given the go-ahead; and HS3, the new cross-North fast train scheme, also in its infancy, Osborne is doing what he can to stem the tide. Even if no inward investment comes in sufficient scale to provide meaningful employment, the bricks are in place for the North of England to at least participate more fully in the South’s continued boom.

It may not be what Osborne had in mind when he spoke of rebalancing, but Northern commuters will be able to get across the country, and up and down, a lot quicker. That is the way the economy is heading. I was struck by listening to a leading economist say that HS2 has the ability to help solve London’s housing crisis, that people will be able to travel daily from the Midlands where property is a lot cheaper, to work in London.

That, doubtless, is also the thinking behind HS3 – that while major capital investment is hard to secure, given the ferocity of global competition – Northerners will be able to move more freely and quickly to obtain employment.

At the back of my mind is the thought that ultimately what is underlying all this activity is an element of buck-passing, The Westminster government is doing all it can to improve conditions, but after that, if they’ve got devolution, it’s up to the North. I’m always reminded of a conversation with a former Tory minister who said his party simply did not know what to do with the North, that they could not solve the problem of how to create mass employment for towns that were built on the back of mass employment, albeit for factories and mills now gone.

That is not a criticism - how to revitalise those towns is an intractable issue – but it might explain why, late in the day, Osborne and his colleagues are doing something about the North. That, and a shock in Scotland and a looming general election with constituencies in England to be won.

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