Joe Anderson: Chancellor’s cash an insult to the north after years of austerity

3rd October, 2017 12:00 pm

“It’s a wicked and cynical business offering superficially simple solutions to complex challenges,” Philip Hammond told the Conservative party conference yesterday.

He meant it as a dig at Labour, but he could have been talking about himself.

Announcing £400m for northern powerhouse transport links is certainly welcome, but it’s like giving a starving man a ham sandwich. It’s too small a gesture to fix the bigger problem.

To put this in context, Liverpool city council will have lost £540m in government funding by 2020.

Most other big northern councils have also had a Treasury axe taken to their budgets.

It’s meant the task of rebalancing the national economy away from an over-reliance on London by spurring on growth across the north of England will remain a pipe dream unless the scale of the government’s response mirrors the scale of the problem.

The chancellor has fallen foul of Harold Wilson’s description of the Treasury: he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

He doesn’t seem to understand the concept behind the northern powerhouse – that if you agglomerate the potential of the north’s great cities they become bigger than the sum of their parts.

It’s one of the few things George Osborne was right about.

Of course, Osborne should have put more cash on the table when he had the chance. But the frustration of northern leaders like me is that the boulder is rolling back down the hill under Philip Hammond.

Like a late train, the message is constantly “it will be along in a minute,” only for the service to be indefinitely delayed. Or, indeed, cancelled.

Just like the scrapping of vital electrification projects in the north of England and elsewhere back in July. Unbelievably, it was made in the same week that the Crossrail 2 line in London was approved.

The irony appeared lost on transport ministers.

By all means let’s improve London’s connectivity, but the north of England deserves the same chance too.

The north needs greater power and finance in order to shape our future – but that future is about us playing a bigger more strategic role in the national economy.

It’s a question of rights and responsibilities: Give us the investment we need – especially for strategic transport initiatives – and we will deliver returns for the country.

The frustration of political leaders in the North is that improving our local city-regional economies – which in turn helps the overall economy – represents one of the clearest areas of overlap in British politics.

However, this cross-party agreement about rebalancing our national economy has to bear fruit. The issues we face are too pressing. The inequalities too vast. The missed opportunities too great.

Last month the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said our economic model in this country is “broken” and that we stand at a “watershed moment” in deciding what sort of economy we need.

“We are failing those who will grow up into a world where the gap between the richest and poorest parts of the country is significant and destabilising,” he added.

He was right. We need a new contract between all parts of our country. One that sees a fair public spending settlement and catch-up investment to equip all parts of the country with the basic infrastructure needed to make our local economies realise their full potential.

All Hammond is offering is a fig-leaf to shield the Cabinet’s Brexit infighting, as important domestic issues fall off the agenda.

The £400m he announced yesterday is a fortieth of the money spent on Crossrail. Having lost so much funding through the dark years of Tory austerity, what he is offering now is nothing short of an insult.

Joe Anderson is mayor of Liverpool.

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