Andy Burnham tells of 'watershed moment' for devolved powers at major Leeds event

Any Burnham at Leeds Civic Hall. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.
Any Burnham at Leeds Civic Hall. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

A “watershed moment” has been declared in the fight for greater political and economic clout in the north of England as regional leaders demanded more devolved powers during a major event in Leeds.

The symposium organised by the UK2070 Commission took place at Leeds Civic Hall yesterday to build on a report published by chairman Sir Bob Kerslake and others, which details the UK’s “deep rooted spatial inequalities”.

Coun Judith Blake at the event. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

Coun Judith Blake at the event. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

It came after a rare decision by the Yorkshire Evening Post, along with rival newspapers across the region, to pull together to insist Government take action to an end the north-south divide.

In an address to the packed audience of business leaders and council bosses Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “I feel they’ve delivered to me the report for which I’ve been waiting all my political life.

“It is an authoritative, unarguable, searing anatomy of a woefully divided country.

“The north-south divide is not the problem of northern whinging but actually a matter of serious social injustice on a scale, as we’ve heard, of Germany in the early 1990s.

“It is a clarion call for change which cuts through the fog currently enveloping British politics which wonderfully, as Lord Kerslake said, has been endorsed by 33 newspapers across the north of England.

“It’s beginning to feel like a watershed moment, when we begin to see substantial political and economic reforms that will lead to the beginning of the closing of the north-south divide."

The report by the commission, which is supported by the universities of Manchester, Sheffield and University College London as well as the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy from the USA and the Hugh Sykes Foundation – looks at how powers in England should be significantly more devolved in 50 years’ time.

It argues that unless action is taken, the regional divide will continue to grow with London and the South East, taking more than 50 per cent of the jobs growth while constituting only 37 per cent of the population.

The work calls for a £10bn-a-year fund and a 25-year window for investment.

Lord Kerslake cited how a poor child in Hackney, London, is three times more likely to go to university as a similarly disadvantaged child from Hartlepool.

A Financial Times editorial said that comparing to the challenge the north-south divide to “reforming a command economy in communist East Germany is deliberately provocative”.

Leeds City Council leader, Coun Judith Blake, told the audience: “I’m quite sure some of the language might have been provocative.

“But we need to be provocative, we need to be disruptive, if I can be so bold.

“Things cannot stay as they are and what we have discovered and believe - but we now have the evidence to support it - is just how deep-rooted the geographical inequalities that are [shown] in the report actually are.”

What's in the report?

The UK2070 Commission’s Fairer and Stronger – Rebalancing the UK Economy calls for action in several ways to improve equality between regions in the country.

It asks for much greater devolution of powers and funding, including the creation of four new ‘super regional’ economic development agencies.

Authors say action is needed to harness new technologies and strengthen local economies.

The work also calls for long-term investment through a new National Renewal Fund - of £10bn a year beyond existing spending plans - aimed at the economy over a 25-year period.

It states that if the situation continues as it is, London and wider south east will have to accommodate over 50 per cent of the UK’s new jobs and housing over the next half-century, with growing inequalities elsewhere

A rebalanced economy, it argues, would still see substantial growth of between 2.4m and 4.3m jobs in London and its wider region - but doubling of the rate of job growth elsewhere.

The productivity gap in the English regions in particular is estimated to cost the economy around £40bn, it says.

It details how the gap in housing affordability in London and south east compared with the rest of England and Wales has almost doubled.

The cost to the NHS of inequalities in society are estimated to be in the order of £4.8bn per year at 2011/2012 levels.