It was not so very long ago that a Tory-sympathising think-tank wrote off the cities of the North of England – recommending that they be more or less run down, with their inhabitants encouraged to move to the somewhat overcrowded South-east. Thankfully, this sort of extreme economic Darwinism is out of fashion, and the Chancellor is to be congratulated on playing his part in burying it as he lays the foundations for a new “northern global powerhouse”.
As a north-west constituency MP (unusually enough for a Tory), George Osborne may appreciate better than most the political as well as the economic dividend his ambitions could bring. If it is a piece of crude electioneering we shouldn’t mind so much; after all, politics is about listening to the needs of all the people, and the Conservative Party will never be able to win a convincing majority unless it can once again win seats in the more prosperous districts of Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. As the resignation of Baroness Warsi neatly encapsulates, Mr Osborne’s party has a problem with women, with ethnic minorities and with northern voters. At least on the last point the Tory leadership is starting to take bold action.
Like a schoolboy with a new train set, Mr Osborne is exploring all sorts of new locomotives and rolling stock to connect the North with the South, as well as with itself. HS2, which has attracted its share of selfish opposition in the comfortable counties and suburbs of southern England, is a brave project for a Conservative-led government to push through. Expanding Heathrow is a still more hazardous exercise – and will require the election to be out of the way before it is started – but that too will help the North and the Midlands, if the proposed “Heathrow spur” to HS2 is completed. Nor are the sums involved especially frightening; some £15bn spread over 15 years represents a small proportion of investment spending as a whole, and requires only a small boost to growth to pay for itself. It is the sort of public-sector project that Tories used to deride Labour and the Liberal Democrats for suggesting. Now they are showing a more pragmatic streak, perhaps as a result of the financial crisis, which proved that a nation is asking for trouble if it relies on one city and one industry – the City of London and banking – for its livelihood.
All that said, such grandiose projects must not come at the expense of smaller-scale, targeted investments that can yield surprisingly large returns across the nation – such as attending to rail and road bottlenecks, making cosmetic improvements to Heathrow’s tired older terminals, or retaining public-transport subsidies on neglected rural lines. The North has more clout than it sometimes realises and it has started to use it. At the same time, even more deprived parts of the UK, such as the North-east and South Wales, should not be neglected. Nor should poorer districts of London, parts of Cornwall and other places not usually associated with hardship be outshone by the trendy claims of Liverpool and Manchester.
Even if everything promised by the One North group and its new friend in the Treasury materialises and meets their most optimistic expectations, some attention to persistent unemployment in Wales and the North-east would also pay dividends.
In any event, who would have thought a One North initiative would win such a warm “One Nation” response, from a Conservative Chancellor whose name is a byword for cuts? Might we see Mr Osborne touring the permanently depressed Welsh valleys and declaring “something will be done”? Let’s hope he has in mind more pleasant surprises.