Move Whitehall rather than Parliament to Yorkshire to power up the North – Tom Richmond

GRANT SHAPPS made a profound point when he unveiled a plan to accelerate improvements on the region’s railways.

Friday, 7th August 2020, 5:57 am
The York Central site has been identified as a potential 'second city of government'. Photo: James Hardisty.

“It will be backed by Department for Transport staff based here in the North,” he wrote in The Yorkshire Post on the day that he launched the new Northern Transport Acceleration Council.

Note those words. Based here in the North. A tacit acceptance that both policy-making – and policy-makers – have been biased in favour of London and the South East for far too long.

Recognition, too, that officials need to be closer to local communities – or railways in this case – if progress is to be made on upgrading links like the Leeds to Manchester trans-Pennine line.

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Transport Secretary Grant Shapps during a visit to The Yorkshire Post earlier this year.

Yet, while the current Transport Secretary is a man on a mission, he should now go even faster – and further – as part of the Government’s much-vaunted ‘‘levelling up’’ agenda.

He should push for the Department for Transport to become a trailblazer and become the first Whitehall ministry to move out of its London comfort zone and into the regions.

The same is also true of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – effectively the department for English regions – and also Defra when it comes to rural affairs.

There’s no reason why they’re still based in London when only a small fraction of their work is related to the capital. Not only does this drive up staff and office costs, but it is part of a London-first culture that has exacerbated the North-South divide.

Northern has already been stripped of its rial franchise by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

Move all officials closer to the people – the proposed Government hub in York or offices in cities like Leeds – and then the Civil Service’s mindset might change too when it comes to the regions.

That’s why Shapps, one of the Cabinet’s more forward-thinking members, should lead by example in his dual role as Northern Powerhouse Minister after the Prime Minister’s request that the York Central site, one of the UK’s biggest development opportunities, be considered as a temporary home for Parliament.

Realistically, this is not going to happen if the crumbling Palace of Westminster is ever vacated for its refurbishment. My understanding is that this ‘wheeze’ is a negotiating position after the projected cost of adapting buildings near Parliament began to escalate markedly.

But the new impetus behind suggestions to create a ‘‘second city of government’’ in York or another location is testament to the agenda-changing impact of The Yorkshire Post’s One North and Power Up The North joint campaigns with dozens of regional newspapers.

How times change. I remember covering a Ministerial visit in the mid-1990s when I dared to ask about the purpose of a sundry meeting with local business bigwigs.

This, I was told, was part of a bi-annual visitation by a designated second-tier (and rate) Minister of State who might – or might not – report back to John Major’s aides and arrange for a few potholes to be fixed. It was tokenism of the lowest order.

By the time Gordon Brown was in power, the case for regional ministers had been made before David Cameron’s government abolished RDAs like Yorkshire Forward and then shut the Business Department’s regional offices in cities like Sheffield.

Now Shapps – and his colleagues – can reverse decades of inertia, inattention and under-investment in the North by challenging the assumption that top civil servants have to be based in London. They don’t – and Covid-19 has proved this.

Political insiders close to this agenda says it’s about getting across the message that senior decision-makers must move too, not just back office managers, to deliver policy more effectively. It’s not about creating ‘‘new’’ roles for cosmetic reasons; they’re enough of them as it is.

As one Whitehall aide intimated, the reason London has superior public transport is that officials will react if their daily commute is disrupted.

Contrast this with the North and the view that the DfT would have responded more quickly to declining performance on the Northern and TransPennine Express rail franchises if top officials – and also Ministers – were left at their mercy of these trains and had to look their fellow passengers, and neighbours, in the eye on a daily basis.

It is why the aforementioned Northern Transport Acceleration Council is a signal of intent if red tape is to be slashed, communication improved, new railways built and even stations, like Marsden, getting disabled access after years of campaigning by local residents.

As Shapps wrote: “This isn’t just some bureaucratic fig leaf, but a doing organisation.” I hope he’s right. But it is a mantra that should be applied to the DfT and other departments in their entirety.

Move them here and then there’s a chance that the Northern Powerhouse will define Britain for a generation and beyond. The prize is that big.

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James Mitchinson

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